Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Strange Personality of Christ by Vincent Buckley

I mentioned yesterday that I would post the article from Quadrant in 1970 that Gerard Windsor mentioned at a seminar on religion and politics. The title of the article is 'The Strange Personality of Christ' - in it, Vincent Buckley, then a professor of English at Melbourne University, attempts to understand the figure of Christ by means of textual analysis of passages in the New Testament:

" 'No man ever spoke like this man.'

'And where I am, you cannot come.'

My thesis will be that the figure of Christ in the gospels, the single and very living figure dramatically yet variously created by the four writers, is a far stranger figure than is generally acknowledged, that he defeats all our expectations, even the most current ones, and that the three things that most markedly characterise him are these: he has power concentrated in his being, which is in part the power of an immensely concentrated emotional life; he is totally autonomous, and is the opposite of what Riesman called 'other-directed man', the man who governs his actions and attitudes by what other people want or expect'; and he is, in Eliade's term, an hierophany, and a creator of hierophanies.

In a sense, then, it is not religion I want to talk but literary criticism. We are all familiar with the demand that the message of Christianity be recast to make it relevant to modern man; but, apart from the fact that some groups of Christians seem unable to give much content at all to the term Christianity, it seems to me totally inappropriate to speak of the whole life of Christianity as a 'message'. I want therefore to direct attention to the figure of Christ rather than to questions of how we may recast what he said or re-formulate what we deem him to represent; and I want to do this without raising, and, I hope, without begging, any questions about his divinity or about the authenticity of the documents in which his figure is established or, as a literary critic might say, created.

I say 'created' deliberately; for a distinctive figure is created in the gospels, and it seems to me that it is a figure very different from, much more profound and strange than, the figure which the great majority of people have seen there. TS Eliot has said that there are as many Hamlets as there are Shakespearean critics. There are as many Christs as there are human needs to be expressed through him, and many of them will of course not be true to the gospels from which they are ultimately derived, they will have a quality of fantasy; and some of these will gain wide currency in any given cultural situation. Of these Christs, I will mention only two – both of them views of Christ that are gaining currency in circles which profess themselves disturbed at the state of the world and of religion within it: the view of Christ as 'the man for others' and the view of him as a 'professional agitator'. The first of these seems to me to miss his strangeness, and the second to miss his whole point.

Bishop John Robinson, in his manifestly open-hearted way, presses for the sense of Christ as 'the man for others'. As a theological formula, this expression may have a good deal of point; as a description of the actual dramatic figure who is the hero of the gospels, it is quite misleading. Unfortunately, it is offered as a summary of a noble statement by Bonhoeffer, who is, in my opinion, one of the great men of this century; and unfortunately in its English form it sounds smug, wistful, even childish. The mind in hearing it fastens on some notion of Christ as the typical, even the archetypal, do-gooder, a man who represents what we would like to be ourselves, or what our culture asks us to want to be. It fastens on the notion of a man acting in a certain way, with a certain tone or style. But it is lacking in forcefulness. It does not demand that we contemplate this figure and try in the most profound reaches of our being to make some sense of the way he stands in the world. Quite unwittingly, it suggests that we are already familiar with his values, and, indeed, with him, before we meet him. On this showing, he can only be an example for us; how can he be a revelation? Christian language has indeed become debased, and Bishop Robinson's seems to be as debased as anybody else's. I say this although I sympathise to a degree with Robinson's intentions.

But, if Robinson's view is efficient, the view of Christ as a professional agitator is utterly wrong. An agitator is precisely what he was not. We might define an agitator in the most favourable sense as a man who devotes himself to creating revolutionary consciousness by involving people in direct action on a mass basis; or we might define him in a less favourable sense as a man who engages in systematic urging, and whose lifestyle is dominated by this habit. In either case, his utterances are not only able to but demand to be expressed in slogans; he incites to march – and marches; he is terrible as a mob with broadsheets; his characteristic cry is 'to the barricades'; he reminds his followers, 'the streets are ours'; he is shaken by his own power to alarm. The sense of urgency which he inculcates is pointless unless it issues in group action, direct action. Either way, he politicises all experience.

Christ's stance in the world was so mysterious, his personality as he made it available to his audiences so complex, his sayings so rich and paradoxical, so often in fact challengingly inscrutable, that no one who reads the gospels in a fresh spirit could think of him as an agitator. He may say 'I come not to bring peace, but a sword'; but it is not a sword that ever appears in his own hand. He may disturb people profoundly, but he always asks them to consider implications and consequences, to know themselves. He is used to the amazement of those around him; he knows he is amazing. He makes no gestures which his person cannot validate. And so he is a strange figure, a figure who, no doubt, we loosely say we know, but whose very words we often cannot understand; whom we loosely say we love, but for whom it is difficult in any ordinary sense to feel affection, since he is both as direct and as distant as lightning. In that body which walks in the gospels there are great distances as well as great scars.

Since I last spoke on this topic, there have been several spasmodic attempts to, as it were, re-read Christ's personality as it appears in the four gospels. I note for example in the New Statesman that somebody has just advanced the theory that Christ was a visitor from outer space, and that so were the apostles (I don't know what the theory holds about Judas Iscariot). Canon Montefiore, of Cambridge, has expressed the view that Christ was probably a homosexual, and an American theologian promptly countered by saying that he was almost certainly a widower. [At least, I like to think that there is a transatlantic dialectic joining these oddities.] These views are all highly deductive, and not worth a moment's consideration, for there is no evidence whatsoever to support any of them. But it is interesting that they should have been voiced: the first of them is very likely an attempt to restore Christ's mystery to him, to replace a dimension in his life that recent talk has tended to remove. The second and third are clumsy attempts to make him, as it were, interestingly normal, to naturalise him in a world of widowers and homosexuals.

Dennis Potter's Christ is far more interesting, if only because of the charge of personal need and concern which the figure seems to carry; but it too is quite removed from the gospel composition, and its total effect is probably one of pathos and distraction. The blurred and uncontrolled gestures, the staccato demanding speech, and the sense of a man somehow clawing at his friends and neighbours, create a picture of a man distracted, thrown off centre. We could not imagine this figure saying with any conviction, 'Come unto me, all ye who labour and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.'

In fact, Potter's neurotic Christ is as un-called for as Montefiore's homosexual: the total figure of Christ as the gospels compose it not only gives no warrant for either suggestion but is at odds with both. They have not made him too strange, but not strange enough; for both of them, there is a stereotype to which he can be approximated; both of them have found a way of coping with him without much fuss.

It is also interesting that we get from the gospel accounts so strong a sense of a fully delineated individual, especially when you reflect that we know him so largely in terms of his own words, and that those words are themselves so largely expository or cryptic; he does not, like Othello or Lear, 'give himself away', reveal himself by inadvertence; and he does not, like Antony or Hamlet, try to define himself for us. He speaks sometimes of his function, or authority, but seldom of his nature. On the contrary, he preserves his own mystery, insists on it; and this is fully in keeping with our sense of a completely integral, fully delineated individual.

Perhaps I can make this point clearer by comparing a passage from the canonical gospels with one from the apocryphal gospels. First, the incident of the Samaritan woman at the well, as created in John 4:

'There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink.
(For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.)
Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.
Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knowest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, give me to drink; thou wouldst have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.
The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; from whence then hast Thou that living water?
Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?
Jesus answered and said unto her,
Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:
But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.
Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither.
The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast said well, I have no husband;
For thou hast five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband; in that saidst thou truly.
The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.'

I choose this passage because it is rightly regarded as one of the most tender and compassionate episodes in the gospels. Yet tenderness is hardly its chief characteristic, and the compassion is nothing like what we normally think of when we use the word. Indeed, there is a surface harshness, even demandingness, which we have also to take account of. Yet how different it is from the apocryphal gospels.

I am thinking of the Book of James and the Gospel according to Thomas. These gospels (what we have of them) are the gospels of the infancy (and, in other cases, of the passion and death) of Christ. They are highly ritualised, full of extraneous detail, and suggestive of an interest in magic.

'Now there went out a decree from Augustus the King that all that were in Bethlehem of Judaea should be recorded and Joseph said: I will record my sons: but this child what shall I do with her? How shall I record her? As my wife? Nay, I am ashamed. Or as my daughter? But all the children of Israel know that she is not my daughter. This day of the Lord shall do as the Lord willeth. 2. And he saddled the she-ass, and sat her upon it, and his son led it and Joseph followed after. And they drew near (unto Bethlehem) within three miles: and Joseph turned himself about and saw her of a sad countenance and said within himself: Peradventure that which is within her paineth her. And again Joseph turned himself about and saw her laughing, and said unto her: Mary, what aileth thee that I see thy face at one time laughing and at another time sad? And Mary said unto Joseph: it is because I behold two peoples with mine eyes, the one weeping and lamenting and the other rejoicing and exulting.'
[The Book of James, xvii (i).]

This, I think, is fine in its way, strong, economical and innocent; but it shows an utterly different sense of characterisation (that is, of how to present or define human personality dramatically) from any of the four gospels. There is, for example, an emphasis on gesture as a humanising device. There are also formalised expressions of puzzlement. This is a mental world which would not evoke awe; or, to put it another way, it does not lead to the creation of hierophanies. In it, we are not in the ambience of the unaffectedly or organically sacred. In an important sense, it is not a religious document, though it is a more earnestly pious document than any of the four gospels. Not surprisingly, it is in accord with the whimsical use of pious legends which so interested the Middle Ages, and, indeed, was the source for many of them.

Or take another example, this time from The Gospel of Thomas:

III But the son of Annas the scribe was standing then with Joseph; and he took a branch of the willow and dispersed the waters which Jesus had gathered together. And when Jesus saw what was done, he was wroth and said unto him; O evil, ungodly, and foolish one, what hurt did the pools and the waters do thee? Behold, now also thou shalt be withered, like a tree, and shall not bear leaves, neither root, nor fruit. And straightway that lad withered up wholly, but Jesus departed and went into Joseph's house…
IV After that again he went through the village, and a child ran and dashed against his shoulder. And Jesus was provoked and said unto him: thou shalt not finish thy course. And immediately he fell down and died…

Now, these passages are not fine, or innocent, or strong; in a word, they are nasty. The usual objection to them is that they are vulgar and sensationalist. I think we may go further. The Jesus who appears in them is a nasty, meddling little magus, and he seems to spend his time riddling pointlessly with human beings and playing arbitrarily with created things. That is to say, his life as presented is lacking precisely in the quality of purpose, and hence in the kind of depth which might lead us to speak of 'the sacred'. Part of what we have here is a story, strictly speaking, of the enslavement of others, and there is a note throughout of threat, and even of childish paranoia, which goes with the riddling and magic.

Interestingly, the narrative is cluttered with detail. In one sense, it is clearly the result of an inferior imagination in the writer: an inferior sense of facts and of how they can reveal and shine. In another sense, it shows an inferior imagination in the hero; and it is worth remarking that these two imaginations (that of the writer and that of the hero) are almost impossible to separate in estimating the total creative impact of the gospel accounts.

The Gospel of Thomas is essentially a collection of yarns. What is wrong with it is that no figure is dramatically created; consequently there is no sense in it of the force and uniqueness of a human life; consequently it lacks any focus for the religious awe of its writer. Its failure as a religious document comes from the same source as its failure as a piece of human characterisation – or, if you prefer, as a humanist document.

I am not saying simply that we should be aware of the humanity of Christ. Fifteen years ago, I was urging that, as of course many people were. Perhaps I may quote a few sentences from that earlier work, to show what view it is that we must now learn to go beyond. I wrote

We must not think of Christ as a mere man, our brother the carpenter, the man who suffered as we do. Neither must we think of him as a docetic Christ … Sentimentalists remind us that he suffered pain. He did more than suffer pain. He was a man with bowels and lungs and genitals, with an alimentary canal every bit as real as his (presumably Galilean) nose ...”

That was addressed to a Catholic audience; and in those days it was necessary for Catholics to hear such remarks, since certain unresolved difficulties in Catholic thinking about the incarnation had had some faintly grotesque consequences in the Catholic imagination. But now, such reminders are redundant. Now, it is is necessary to take a closer look at the gospels and to identify the mode of his manhood, to see him as a specific figure and to assess him as a specific presence. For many people have gone into and through the notion of Christ's humanity without touching the sides, and have emerged into a contented, even missionary unawareness of his figure and presence.

It is simply not good enough for believers or non-believers to have a general impression of the figure which Christ cuts, an impression on which they will base a view of the role they will assign him. For one thing, has the distinction between believer and non-believer got much content any more? For another, the roles which Christ has traditionally been assigned in the culture of the West have been chiefly comprehensible on theological grounds and within theological systems. An assigning of roles on such a basis will become ridiculous, a kind of group fantasy, in an historical era when theology, as distinct from scriptural studies for example, is probably at its lowest point ever. In such a situation, to speak of encounters with Christ, or meetings with Christ, is very likeley to engage in nothing more than a loose, pseudo-mystical construction of a personality myth which happens to appeal to certain peculiarly modern modes of sentimentalism. It is therefore essential that Christ be seen as he appears in the gospels. We have to give to him and to the highly dramatic and complex action of which he is the centre at least as close an attention as we would give to Hamlet or Lear or Stephen Dedalus or Raskolnikov. We are familiar with kinds of thinking about literary problems which assign roles or meanings to fictional characters without an adequate attention to the texts in which they appear; a kind of thinking which will, for example, declare that Captain Ahab represents good or evil, and will then 'read' Moby Dick in terms set by this declaration; which will say that, because Cordelia plainly embodies unyielding integrity and honest, unaffected goodness, her reunion with her father Lear at the end of the play must be seen as a redeeming of him. All such activities have about them an element of what I would call deeming, of deeming something to be the case; and they are all to some degree question-begging or evasive. Conditioned as we were by centuries of theological thinking, we used to deem Christ's action and person to be and to mean this or that; and we used to kill one another for it. But now, in reaction against all that, we are in danger of deeming his action and person to be of an opposite sort: to be those of 'the man for others, or the model for our behaviour, whether aggressive or recessive, or the professional agitator. It is interesting that, in all three deemings, the tendency is to see him as like ourselves, or like our picture of ourselves; and that is, of course, to make him more ordinary and to de-sacralise his image.

If, then, we bring a serious view of a literary critical kind to the gospels, we will see that they are works composed and elaborated as narrative or dramatic wholes, and that their central figure, Christ, is a figure in a sense created, with a specific tone and a complex of values created by the narrative and dramatic means. He may be and mean more than that, but he must be seen as being and meaning at least that. He is in a clear sense the creation of the writers, in that their composition and stressing of events frames him in a certain way, and so creates a sense of what he is. What we are faced with is the literary critical problem of estimating the composition of the hero within the terms of the narrative myth which he dominates.

This problem is very different from that which is faced by biblical scholars, and which form-criticism, for example, has tried to meet. I know that questions about literary sources, and habits of composition, and the use of literary kinds (like the parable or the saying), and theological intentions, are very important. And I also know that the sensibility and use of sources and theological purpose are all rather different in John from what they are in Mark or Luke. But I'm not concerned at all with these differences or with these scholarly questions. My sense of the figure of Christ does not rest on, or entail, or, I think, even suggest any contentions about how or why any gospel was written, about its process or its purpose. For that reason, I have deliberately not read any scholarly commentary on the gospels before finishing my analysis. It is therefore all the more interesting to me that, when, after writing, I read Nineham's introduction to Mark's gospel, I was struck by the degree to which his reading of Mark's venture, done on entirely scholarly grounds, accords with my own sense, gained on entirely different grounds, of the figure which Christ cuts in the gospels as a whole.

The gospels do not deal with Christ's motives, except with a ritualised brevity, and they hardly deal at all with his states of mind. Yet we are conscious of a very profound, and strange, and concentrated emotional life in him, a life which is not at the beck and call of others. We are conscious, that is, of his intellectual and emotional autonomy.

He is neither 'the man for others' nor an agitator. He reveals the world to us, and ourselves in the world. By inviting us to contemplate him, he invites us to contemplate the world as he shows it to us, thus to contemplate our own unworthiness as we contemplate him and our world, and thus to contemplate certain possibilities for that world and for ourselves. The total figure is not, in my judgement, primarily urging us to do or to become something, but inviting us to contemplate him and to enter imaginatively into his stance in the world. He shocks us into a kind of stillness not by what we recognise as his rightness but by what we sense as his strangeness.

Consider, for example, his reaction to John the Baptist in Matthew 3; or consider his words in Matthew 6:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal;
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness.
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.
Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin:
And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

What I think is remarkable about this passage is that the figure which it creates as the speaker is not just a single-minded, spiritually monotone moralist or ascetic, but a most flexible and in a way alien poet. We know that the author at this point represents Christ as making a public speech, indeed, preaching a sermon. But this is not the language or the logic of anything for which speech or sermon could be thought an adequate term. The authority of the utterance is altogether too strange for that. The passage is notable for the variety of its emphasis. Certainly it offers moral exhortation and ascetic reminders, but it offers also a fiercely concentrated poetic insight into the possibilities of the world in which exultation and reminder are offered. This insight comes in the verses about the relation of the eye and the body; if the eye is clear, the whole body is full of light; if the eye is evil, the whole body is full of darkness. And it comes in the famous verses about the lilies of the field, which present with a classic stress not only a sense of the rightness of creation but of its mortality. It is odd to think of these verses as part of the sermon on the nount, which is usually remembered as an affair of generalised sweetness and light, and a remarkably sweet tempered recalling of men into brotherliness. The passage seems to me to be bristling with warning, with a sense of threat and anomaly, and heavy with a visionary concern of the sort which we have to call poetic.

Or take the following passage from Matthew 8:

And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee withersoever thou goest.
And Jesus saith unto him, the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; the son of man hath not where to lay his head.
And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.
But Jesus said unto him, Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.

Again, it is in no simple sense merely a moralist, an ascetic, a teacher, who speaks these words. The figure created here is enigmatic, and enigmatically authoritative; he is self-contained, totally autonomous man, exercising in discourse, debate, and action alike a personal authority which in most men could hardly have avoided a touch of contempt. He is imperative, almost imperious. This man does not linger lovingly over his own deeds, he walks with confidence among his enemies, ignores their laughter, and out-argues them. If he is 'the man for others'', it is on his own terms, or, at least, in his own style. If he meets the world's needs, it is hardly on the world's terms. He debates as he heals. We are told nothing of the loving expression on his face, or about how long he held in his own the withered hand which he heals, or with what softness he spoke to the woman taken in adultery. Anything we suppose about these matters is due to a sentimentality produced by cultural conditioning. He presents himself as a paradox, mystifying and even frightening people, accepting homage, standing on his dignity: not so likeable figure as most of us, and certainly more fiercely contentious. In John 8, in the episode of the woman taken in adultery, we find this strange remoteness where we might least have expected it:

This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
And again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?
She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

This episode is often, and rightly, taken as an example of Christ's compassion and humanity; but I think it also important to note the absence of deliberately humanising touches in it. The method of narration keeps the whole episode quite removed from any expression of sentiment. The weight of it falls on Christ's dialectical triumph, and the highly enigmatic, indeed anti-social means by which that was achieved. He is the complete opposite of what David Riesman calls the 'other directed man'; he almost literally has no time for the Pharisees. What we have here is an example of moral teaching through dialectical superiority. The figure we see is a curiously awesome one. The dialectical quality in the narrative, and the dialectical aspect of Christ's relation to his environment, both seem to me significant. A high proportion of the gospels show him as winning debating victories. Even his victory over Satan when he is tempted in the wilderness is in an important way a dialectical one. He does not merely survive the force of evil, but out-argues and out-wits it.

It would be to episodes like that of the woman taken in adultery that the commentators would presumably wish to ascribe such terms as 'radiant friendliness' (Caird) and 'exquisitely and touchingly human'. But, whereas Christ's understanding of human issues may invite such terms, I think that his actual demeanour, his lifestyle or even thought style, as displayed in this episode, require a quite different terminology and have quite different implications.

The matter is similar with such episodes as the plucking of the ears of corn for food on the Sabbath. They show that he is neither deliberately shocking nor carefully reassuring his disciples about the nature of the dedicated religious life. His action in relation to his disciples both reinforces their sense of the sacred areas in life and extends those areas by radically changing the disciples' focus on them. That is, he changes consciousness to a revolutionary extent but by gradualist (that is, by non-revolutionary) means; in doing so, he changes people's sense of the sacred, but not absolutely; he certainly does not abolish it. Men are left to find their own way deeper into the existing commitments and institutions (into village life, into the synagogue); but they are not jostled or bullied into or out of them.

At the same time, I must insist once more on the dialectical nature of his relationship with his society (particularly with his disciples as representative of that society), and add that at many moments that quality of dialectic becomes one of condemnation, and of general condemnation at that. For example, in calling him a poet, I was thinking of his constant and constantly creative attitude to language. He uses language with the greatest force and precision; but he uses it often to warn and to condemn. He is a talker then, he shows by talking, and his talk is a profound sort of poetry; but he also talks often about words: 'For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.' [Matt. 12:37]; a 'generation of vipers' cannot 'speak good things'. Men reveal themselves by their words, however careful they are trying to be. He heals individual blind men, cripples, deaf mutes, diseased or possessed; but he sees the whole generation as truncated in these ways:

'For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and here with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.' [Matt. 13:15.]

It is an evil generation because it has no words to save it, refuses to wake from its sleep, which is a sleep of the spirit, a heaviness in the bodily senses, a failure of lightness and strength in the language. It refuses to be a living society with a live heart and a living language. And he taunts it almost with its weakness, waves aside excuses, holds up his own power, in speech and act, as a reproach to them. For his venture is salvation, a full waking. Hearing and receiving the word is receiving life: what claim does any poet make but that one? And aren't many poets mocked for making it in the way Christ was mocked? If he is a poet, he is a highly apocalyptic one; we might compare him with Blake, who is an avowed disciple of his. Chapters 23, 24 and 25 of Matthew have a note of horrified realisation about them. They have no doubt the exaltation of prophecy (as in Isaiah and Ezekiel), but they have also its pain, its moving on the edge of uncontrol. He sees men still speaking and acting their way into the abyss, and he has not been able to prevent them. But the figure which he cuts is much larger, more intriguing and compelling, than any of the prophets, for he heals, completes, raises from the dead among those whom he reproaches. If we compare his great speech in Matthew 24 with the speeches of Ahab or Lear or Julius Caesar, we see the difference immediately: it is a concern not chiefly to give voice to personal feelings or a sense of circumstances or an awareness of fate, but to reveal, as strongly yet as economically as possible, the direction in which a whole society is bound; the impulse is that of the poet and seer, but the intention is to teach, to make something clear. Here, as elsewhere, he is the most amazing figure I have ever struck in any work.

We must remember, of course, that after a certain point in his ministry he is surrounded by debating opponents and spies. Some taunt or abuse him, some laugh him to scorn, some treat him with superstitious wonder, some try to engage him in idle chatter or surmise. Yet in all encounters he keeps the initiative, and the status quaestionis at the end of each is that which he has established. For example, he spends more time discussing religion with the Samaritan woman at the well than he does on many occasions with the Pharisees. He retains the initiative, and by that fact alone inculcates awe. Sometimes this awe is a kind of panic. One city is so frightened of him that its inhabitants beg him to leave it. His relations and neighbours (Mark 6) will not worship him because, so they say, they know him; he is too ordinary to be worshipped; yet at other places they express astonishment and revulsion at him on precisely the same grounds; which raises the interesting question what 'know' might mean in that context. When we consider in what ways and in what a spirit he deals with all these threats and obstructions, we can hardly suppose that his dramatic role is adequately summed up in the formula, 'the man for others'. He is not merely a servant, however mysterious a sort, he is also what Mircea Eliade calls an hierophany, and a source or creator of hierophanies; that is, he reveals the sacred, the beyond, in his person, in his speech, and in his acts. He opens the world up so that its depths may be seen. In some places, as for example in Chapter 6 of John, he uses analogies of the sort which, obviously, none of his audience is used to, and which therefore they take to be a scandalous sort of riddling. At such points his 'message' is difficult, not just because we cannot understand the symbolic language of his culture, but because, presumably, his language goes beyond what is typical of his culture. His disciples fail sometimes to understand him in something like the way many students fail to understand Blake. As for his enemies, 'Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word' (John 8:43). Much of the time he appears 'the man against others'.

I would not want to obscure and play down the respects in which Christ offers himself as a servant, to the world as a whole and to the needy around him: an offering which has led the Church to associate him with the 'suffering servant' of Isaiah, and to derive valuable insights from the association. But here, as elsewhere, the activity has a paradoxical strangeness and force. When he washes his disciples' feet, for example, he does so as one accustomed to command: 'If I do not wash you, you have no part in me' (John 13:8). As a friend of mine has pointed out to me, the 'servant's role is here assumed with strange, authoritative force' in an episode which actually strengthens my thesis. Indeed, the episode has the usual dialectical structure: an objection is met with what amounts to an imperative epigram, and a claim is then parried with a kind of apocalyptic certainty ('and you are clean, but not all of you'). And, as so often, it constitutes something like an epiphany or, as I said earlier, an hierophany.

The word 'hierophany' may seem an unnecessary sophistication; but I use it because it helps me to avoid a more theologically pressured language. It is not as neutral as it sounds, of course, but it is as neutral as I can find. Eliade defines it as follows: 'Man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane. To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany.' And I notice that, in spelling out the concept, he suggests that Christ may be regarded as 'the supreme hierophany'. He goes on, 'In each case we are confronted by the same mysterious act – the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural "profane" world.'

Eliade is of only limited help in my present analysis, for, although I want to use his word 'hierophany', I do not want to get caught with the implicit dualism of his position. I do not want to oppose the sacred to the profane, the religious to the secular, the beyond to the present; but I think that my account of Christ's created dramatic presence in the gospel narratives is precisely an account of an hierophany, a fact which I realised very late in the piece. His dramatic presence manifests the sacred in the profane, the beyond in the here-and-now: that is what the evangelists have created by creating their sense of his human individuality, and it is what the authors of the apocryphal gospels have failed to create by stressing magical trickery and failing to create the presence of an integral and precisely delineated man. And he is an hierophany partly because of his power to create hierophanies, whether by his speech (poetry) or by his actions (healing and showing).

So far I have deliberately refrained from dealing with any miracles, or parables, or extended discourses. But I would like to deal now with the episode of the raising of Lazarus in John 11, since, although it is peculiar to John, this episode strikingly consolidates the view of Christ's personality and stance which I have formed on other grounds. In drawing attention to it, I am stressing not so much the miraculous element as the dimension of Christ's personality which it reveals to us; and that is in line with my general intention in this paper.

We have to consider the extraordinary drama of this episode as a whole, and the curiously oblique or metaphorical ways in which Christ deals with each of the remarks made to him, until the point at which he comes to the tomb. His way to the tomb is one which James Joyce might have described as one of silence and cunning:

Therefore, his sisters sent unto him saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.
When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.
Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister and Lazarus.
When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.

That delay is perhaps the most curious feature of the whole episode. When Christ decides to go to Bethany, the conversation between him and his disciples is on quite a different matter, their own safety:

Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judea again.
His disciples say unto him, Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again?
Jesus answered, Are there not 12 hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world.
But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.
These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go that I may awake him out of sleep.

The same concentrated reserve on Christ's part, the same tactic of obliquely debating with his friends, occurs when he meets Martha outside the town, although of course there is more overt warmth in his response to her. When, however, he meets her sister Mary, the debating and reservation are at an end; and we get a picture of Christ at once declaring his emotions much more freely and concentrating the resources of his own being more intensely:

When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled,
And said, Where have you laid him? And they said unto him, Lord, come and see.
Jesus wept.
Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!
And some of them said, Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died?
Jesus therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.
Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he has been dead four days.
Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldst believe, thou shouldst see the glory of God?
Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.
And when he had spoken thus, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.

This is a truly extraordinary account of the purposiveness of a personality. Christ fences with his disciples, he debates with Martha; he is curiously detached and magisterial, almost demanding. But when Mary falls at his feet, whatever inner disturbance has been contained or held back by his perfect assumption of his public role bursts forth. It is evident that he is intensely affected not only by Lazarus's death and by his proximity to Lazarus's body, but also (and perhaps more relevantly) by the presence and demeanour of the sisters. On the other hand, the disturbance breaks out not only into weeping and groaning, but also into an extraordinary concentration of his powers.

In a sense, he withdraws further into himself; the others see him as it were reaching the secret depths of his power; he is open to them, but it is his secrecy that is opened; his mysteriousness becomes more palpable, and that is the source of his magisterial stance.

This suggests a rather uncomfortable fact; that, if we want to 'confront' Christ, it is a most paradoxical figure we will be confronting. In my opinion, he is in a sense non-confrontable; and I think that our task is, rather, to contemplate him and to work our way into his life, which means expanding our own imagination to reach into his imagination. Most non-Christians are as sick as I am of the coy language of confrontation, meeting, and of the man for others. They ask, Is he real? In a sense not entirely unlike the sense in which one might ask, Is Blake real? Or Is Hamlet real?

I have mentioned Blake more than once; and it may seem that my reading of Christ's figure is closer to Blake's than to anyone else's. So, in a sense, it is; there is the same stressing of Christ's magisterial stature, his fierceness, and his self-contained power. But I think that Blake's is, in the end, a somewhat frenetic composition, composed of pictures rapidly and briefly superimposed on one another as the verse chants insistently on. His Christ in The Everlasting Gospel is something of an isolate and something of a thunderer; he does not so much debate as bombinate.

Blake has in fact tried to recreate or redramatise him; for example, he gives his Christ new lines to speak; and he also propels him into verse activity of a misleading sort:

Thunders and lightnings broke around,
And Jesus' voice in thunders' sound:
'Thus I seize the Spiritual Prey,
Ye smiters with disease, make way.
I come your King and God to seize.
Is God a smiter with disease?'
The God of this World raged in vain:
He bound Old Satan in his chain,
And bursting forth, his furious ire
Became a Chariot of fire.

This is not the Christ of the gospels but a new figure: Blake in using him is acting not as a literary critic but as a poet, milking an established myth to create or strengthen his own. There are far too many 'thunders and lightnings' in Blake's account, salutary as it is in some respects. By comparison, the gospel accounts are reflective and contemplative. Blake has wanted to turn Christ into Jesus, the essential man, he who feels, desires, walks, most like a man; but what he presents on the whole is a hyperactive demiurge.

It has been suggested to me that my reading of Christ's personality is too harsh and unsympathetic, and that it would be considerably changed if I took other episodes. I have already mentioned that I have deliberately refrained from dealing with the parables or the miracles, although they would have strengthened my case, not weakened it. The episodes which have actually been proposed to me as a corrective to what I have been saying are the weeping over Jerusalem and the agony in the garden; and I shall now do something about both of these.

I have suggested that the episode of the woman taken in adultery has been overlaid with accretions of sentiment taken from devotional and artistic practice. But everyone remembers the episodes of the weeping and the agony as being suffused, not overlaid, with a sheer warmth of unadorned human feeling. But that is just as true of the narratives of the passion, and I am convinced that a use of them would greatly strengthen my case. I will not deal with them, however, for the matters they raise are extremely complex, and they too have been overlaid in their way with a ritualised significance deriving from the liturgical and artistic uses to which they have been put. In one way, a non-Christian may be in a better position to see and feel the passion events as a created dramatic action, where we may be too inclined to see them as a message or a ceremony. The weeping and the agony do not have this disadvantage, and it may be instructive to consider how the warmth of human feeling is created in them.

They are both, of course, characterised by such a warmth, and indeed by a quality much too intense and expansive to be described as warmth. But, as with many of the greatest moments in drama or prose fiction, we find it hard to identify this quality, much less comprehend it. For a start, I should say that the states portrayed, the states of mind and of feeling, are, in ordinary human terms, ambiguous and only partly accessible to us. It is interesting, however, that they cry out for a humanist interpretation; this is representative man suffering, and voicing his suffering. The weeping over Jerusalem, for example, remains a naked expression of human feeling even if we give a ritualised meaning to the word 'weeping'. However ritual its kind, it is a bursting out, as in the episode of the raising of Lazarus.

Now, I repeat that these facts about the episodes do not in the least change my sense of the total presence of Christ as a created dramatic figure. Integral to my case is the contention that he is a figure of the strongest and most concentrated feeling, but that that feeling is not in Riesman's sense other-directed; the feeling, that is, is part of his power and his autonomy. We might put it another way by saying that the question which arises is that of the impersonalising of emotion, either in Eliot's or in Leavis's sense.

In Matthew's Gospel, the Jerusalem verses are set among a group of verses cursing the Pharisees; they are part of a speech, and they do not include anything about weeping or about surveying the city from a height; they are followed by a prophecy of the end of the world, given in the Garden of Olives; and I think in this prophecy we can sense a certain relief or concentration of powers after the firmness of the public address. Therefore, it may be better to take the episode as it occurs in Luke.

It occurs there in two places, in Chapter 13 and Chapter 19. The first of the two is like this:

The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee.
And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.
Nevertheless I must walk today, and tomorrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!
Behold, your house is left unto you desolate; and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

The second insists more on the quality of personal anguish:

And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it,
Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in thine own day, the things which belong to thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.
For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee around, and keep thee in on every side,
And shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.
And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought;
Saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves.

Whether you take the first of these, with its swelling resonant language, or the second, with the precise violence of its language, or the two of them together, I think they provide a striking exemplification of my whole thesis.

The same, I think, is true of the agony in Gethsemane. We might take any of the three accounts; I shall take Matthew's; Mark's is very similar to his, but a little longer and a little smoother, and Luke's is shorter, without the ritual three visits to the sleeping apostles, but with the powerful detail of Christ's sweat becoming 'as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground'. Matthew's account is very economical, even terse, putting down the emotional facts briskly. There is throughout it a sense of Christ as somehow detached from the apostles, going back to them to reproach them for falling asleep, but noticing them only in a surface way; this is a feature which in a full discussion one would have to pay particular attention to. It is an extraordinary picture of the concentration of a whole person in agony on his fate, passing through all these relationships carrying the burden of his acceptance:

Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder.
And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.
Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here and watch with me.
And he went a little further, and fell on his face and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.
And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?
Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.
And he came and found them asleep again; for their eyes were heavy.
And he left them and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words.
Then cometh he to his disciples, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest, behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.
Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me.

This marvellously composed scene deserves a lengthy commentary to itself. All I will say is that, even if you think it has a specific feeling somewhat different from that of any other scene in the gospels, that feeling is in keeping with the feelings I have identified, or tried to identify, elsewhere. If we have here a man utterly concentrated in his own agony, and in the purpose of which that agony is the sign, we also have a man whose sense of purpose enables him to transcend the agony; once again, a man characterised by the possession of inner power, of complete autonomy, and by the fact that he is both an hierophany and a creator of hierophanies by his presence, his speech, and his acts. And in the end these are the three aspects of his personality that I would concentrate on.

Now, it is only fair to say that intelligent objections have been made to my way of dealing with the figure and presence of Christ in the gospels; and I find three of these objections very interesting. The first is that what I'm doing is taking carefully selected passages which tend to support my prior impression of Christ, which is as subjective as most other impressions, and that I've left out those many passages in which a more accessible, and perhaps more ordinary, figure presents himself. This is possible, but I don't think it is true. What I have at any rate aimed to do is to use the selected passages as a way of defining and testing a total impression of him gained from reading the gospels as a whole; this is a good literary critical method, although I know that it can never be perfectly deployed. The second objection is that I have in fact run the four gospels together to produce a sort of joint or composite figure, and that I have not taken account of the fact that they are four quite separate accounts composed with quite different aims and on quite different bases. This is true in a way, since I'm not in fact concerned in the present context to discriminate between the accounts, although I agree that there is room for discrimination to be made. But in fact I have explicitly used for detailed commentary only two of the gospels, those of Matthew and John, because I was aware of the problem when I began. And in the end, although a good deal more work needs to be done on the lines which I have suggested, I don't know that I get a very different sense of Christ as a presence whichever of the gospels I read. The third objection is that my sense of Christ as a poet is to some degree an illusion produced by the poetry of the Authorised (or of the Douai) version; that the Greek of Matthew is in fact not poetic Greek but colloquial and prose Greek, and that the Greek of Mark is rougher still.

I don't know about this contention, for I don't read Greek. But I would say two things in reply to it insofar as it is offered as an objection to what I have actually said: first, Christ was not speaking Greek, and we don't know how his speeches sound in the Aramaic; second, it is an open question what the notion of a 'poetic language', as distinct from that of a poetic diction, may mean. Consider the Irish saying, 'They always went forth to battle and they always fell.' Is that 'poetic' language? Or is it prose language? It seems to me, at any rate, that it resonates with the implications of what it states, and that its effect as a whole statement is poetic. So for the time being I shall consider myself justified in disregarding this third objection also.

We Christians have fallen into the habit of talking about the need to be shocked out of our comfortable conventional images of Christ; but it is possible to have a comfortable or conventional expectation of what it would be like to be shocked. Our notions of shock may be as stereotyped as our notions of virtue. There is, after all, a certain reassurance in the talk about Christ as an 'agitator'; that is something we can understand, even when we don't in fact know what an agitator is. And I suspect that some people will have been less shocked by such talk than by some of the things I have said.

Yet I have said these things for several reasons, among them these two: first, that the distinction between believers and non-believers is ceasing to have any real meaning in many circles, and that, recognising that fact, we may at least agree to have a fresh and detailed look at this remarkable figure of the gospels who offers a model of what human autonomy may look like; second, that, for reasons which are not entirely clear, there has been a revival of interest in the figure of Christ among writers in Eastern Europe and especially in the Soviet Union. The interesting question is not whether this interest is heterodox or not, or whether or not it is being fully articulated in theology, or whether or not it leads to worship in any traditional sense. The interesting point is that a Christian language, incorporating approaches to the figure of Christ, seems to be gradually becoming accepted as necessary to focus certain deeply felt human needs. It is a strange Christ that they are coming to rely on, because in such a Christ their own alienation may be comprehended.

With us, the case may be different; our culture may not be the prodigal son, but the son who stayed at home. If so, we will soon be wondering where and what our home is, and what Christ has to do with our occupancy of it."

No comments:

Post a Comment