Pop quiz time! What Would Jesus Do?
If you’ve spent too much time in Sunday School, you might regard this question as multiple choice:
- come down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit and become incarnate from the Virgin Mary
- give a sermon, parable, or odd prophesy that won’t be understood by anybody present
- forgive people of their sins while miraculously healing their bodies and casting out their demons
- get crucified under Pontius Pilate; suffering death and burial but on the third day rising again in accordance with the Scriptures
- all of the above.
All of which is great, but misses the point of the question, which is to think about the question. But when we know what Jesus will do and won’t do and we treat deviation from those points as heresy, then there doesn’t seem to be much room for meditation. Besides, comparison of our condition to The Divine, even in our best attempts, is going to come up woefully short. As Reinhold Niebuhr explains,
It is an ideal never attained in history or in life, but one that gives us an absolute standard by which to judge both personal and social righteousness… Valuable as this kind of [Jesus-oriented] perfectionism is, it certainly offers no basis for a social ethic that deals responsibly with a growing society. Those of us who believe in the complete reorganization of modern society are not wrong in using the ideal of Jesus as a vantage point from which to condemn the present social order, but I think we are in error when we try to draw from the teachings of Jesus any warrant for the social policies which we find necessary to attain any modicum of justice. (Love and Justice, Selections from the Shorter Writings)
But if we can’t get an entirely useful and right answer, then what value is there in asking the question? This was actually studied by Dr. Robert Hartley in the mid-1980s based on his essay-writing success as a student when he paused to consider “What Would BBC Newsreader Person Do?” The set-up had the researchers asking children to “act as if you’re clever” when addressing problems supposed to be too difficult, and then seeing the surprisingly good results:
…instead of responding spontaneously to the task from a habitually assumed perspective, [the child] is encouraged to make their behaviour the object of their considerations […], so creating a distance, a detachment from what they are actually doing, in terms of the question: ‘How would a clever person do the task?’
And while this directly contradicts the egotistical pablum of “always be yourself,” it goes a spot further when compared to the perfectionist “What Would Jesus Do?” because the minimally honest answer to “WWJD?” is going to be “a heck of a lot better than what I’m doing now,” necessarily resulting in the awkard inferiority- and shame-inducing realization that
“Do you usually do better than the person you acted like or worse?”
“– Because I’m Paul Hanworth”.
So I’m concerned that Christianity — especially in its protestant incarnations with their dearth of saints — has worked hard to maintain the sacred state of the goal (good) by destroying anything that looks like a path towards the goal (WTH?). These thoughts occurred to me when I read The Odyssey and found, early in the book, Telemachos having to encounter the question “What Would Athena Do?” with the situation resolving thusly:
She led the way swiftly, and the man followed behind her walking in the god’s footsteps.
And while monotheists scoff at any conception of divinity that isn’t omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent, as far as role-models go, not having those characteristics is perfectly acceptable because having those characteristics is cheating. Let’s compare what the grey-eyed Athena would do to what Jesus would do:
She spoke in prayer but was herself bringing it all to completion.
When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8:16-17)
Now there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus is a better deity-incarnate for the reconciliation of the mortal to the divine. But when it comes to role-modeling, Athena’s “Pray & Do” seems like a much more plausible way for us mere mortals to go. Up to the point where she revels perhaps a bit too exuberantly in the slaughter of a hundred guys by Team Odysseus, obviously, but different situations may call for different role models.
In Fear & Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard introduces his thinking with an “Attunement” with four variations of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, with another tucked in “Eulogy on Abraham”:
- Abraham disavows Isaac so that Isaac cries out to God for mercy: “But Abraham said softly to himself, ‘Lord God in heaven, I thank you; it is better that he believes me a monster than that he should lose faith in you.'”
- The scene plays out as written, but there is subtle aftermath: “From that day henceforth, Abraham was old; he could not forget that God had ordered him to do this. Isaac flourished as before, but Abraham’s eyes were darkened, and he saw joy no more.”
- Another alternate aftermath: Abraham “threw himself down on his face, he prayed to God to forgive him his sin, that he had been willing to sacrifice Isaac, that the father had forgotten his duty to his son. He often rode his lonesome road, but he found no peace.”
- Or maybe: “…when [Abraham] turned away and drew the knife, Isaac saw that Abraham’s left hand was clenched in despair, that a shudder went through his whole body — but Abraham drew the knife… Then they returned home again, and Sarah hurried to meet them, but Isaac had lost the faith. Not a word is ever said of this in the world, and Isaac never talked to anyone about what he had seen, and Abraham did not suspect that anyone had seen it.”
- But what if: Abraham “would have gone to Mount Moriah, he would have split the firewood, lit the fire, drawn the knife. He would have cried out to God, ‘Reject not this sacrifice; it is not the best that I have, that I know very well, for what is an old man compared with the child of promise, but this is the best I can give you. Let Isaac never find this out so that he may take comfort in his youth.’ He would have thrust the knife into his own breast.”
Ending his considerations of what could have happened, Kierkegaard concludes by telling Abraham that he:
…will never forget that you needed 100 years to get the son of your old age against all expectancy, that you had to draw the knife before you kept Isaac; he will never forget that in 130 years you got no further than faith.
There are two flows here the latitude of not wandering into forbidden heresies grants the mortal mind. First, as previously described, it allows us to practice making a behavior the object of detached consideration such that we will be better able to consider “What Would Tso-Ahnso Do?” when faced with a situation where we doubt our own capabilities. Secondly, it may — as Kierkegaard did for Abraham, and as Homer did for Odysseus and Telemachos — add persisting value to the transient results achieved through apparently superior action by strengthening the humanity of the role model.
Buddhists are perhaps fortunate to have role models that wrote common texts on how to improve (without human sacrifice). By way of contrast, the Christian/Protestant tendency toward the ex post facto just-so stories on one side of the spectrum and miraculous conversions of the “vilest offenders” on the other leaves a wide gap in the middle for the people who were lead on the straight-and-narrow away from being a vilest offender but simply aren’t just-so to languish in, never mind the disillusioned modern secular non-reassurance of “always be yourself” for people who are wondering how to be better than themselves. Over time, this results in the situation Niebuhr describes:
One of the strange moral anomalies of our times is that there are businessmen and men of affairs who have a more precise sense of justice in feeling their way through the endless relativities of human relations than professional teachers of morals. Practical experience has made them sensitive to the complex web of values and interests in which human decisions are reached, while the professional teachers of religion and morals deal with simple counters of black and white. This is certainly one of the reasons why the pulpit frequently seems so boring and irrelevant to the pew.
Or, as Nietzsche posits in Beyond Good and Evil:
Jesus said to his Jews: “The law was for servants;–love God as I love him, as his Son! What have we Sons of God to do with morals!”
So let’s go back to the previous question and ask with just a slight alteration: What Would Nietzsche’s Jesus Do? Does that help you think more about your options? Or shall we ask: What would Kalypso, shining among divinities, do? What would grey-eyed Pallas Athene do? What would Hephaistos design and build? How would Bast keep her paws dry? What would Abraham sacrifice?
A wider range of examples carefully considered may give better guidance for how we should act than a perfect Just-So reduced to a platitude.
And to answer the question posed in the title, “What Would Eris Do?”
It seems that Zeus was preparing a wedding banquet for Peleus and Thetis and did not want to invite Eris because of Her reputation as a trouble maker. … This made Eris angry, and so She fashioned an apple of pure gold and inscribed upon it ΚΑΛΛΙΣΤΙ (“To The Prettiest One”) and on the day of the fete She rolled it into the banquet hall and then left to be alone and joyously partake of a hot dog.
And now you know.