Books: A Point of View: Jesus |
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Jesus : on tolerance and Christianity

(S04E09, broadcast 26th and 28th December 2008)

"Lest we forget, Jesus the man"

In the first scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, on the battlements of Elsinore, just before dawn, Marcellus speaks. Marcellus is a walk-on part who gets only a few lines, but it was typical of Shakespeare to give even the pizza-delivery man something fabulous to say. Marcellus says that in the season wherein our saviour’s birth is celebrated, the bird of morning singeth all night long. And Horatio says, ‘So have I heard, and do in part believe it.’ It’s by no means certain whether Shakespeare believed that his own soul could be saved by Christ or any other saviour, but it is certain that there were all kinds of things about the Christian religion that Shakespeare believed at least in part.

Well before the arrival on earth of our greatest writer, the process of ceasing to believe in a life beyond the grave had already begun. The question was already in existence of how much of the Christian religion would be left if it were deprived of the certainty that anyone who had faith would join the exalted Christ in the next life. And the answer was already in existence too. There would be a lot left. Shakespeare’s plays and poetry were saturated with Christian ceremony, Christian symbolism, the seasons of the Christian year. The soul of Hamlet flew to heaven with an escort of singing angels.

Living his life a hundred years before Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci was quite possibly no believer in a life to come. All the evidence suggests, or at any rate little of it does not suggest, that he was a scientific empiricist whose atheism would have satisfied the requirements of Richard Dawkins. If Dawkins had been alive at the time and wearing the appropriate Renaissance clothes, in which he would have looked quite good, he might have paid a visit to Leonardo when the genius was at work in the dining hall of Santa Marie delle Grazie in Milan. Richard of Oxford could have asked Leonardo of Vinci if he really believed in all that supernatural stuff and Leonardo would probably have said no.

The conversation would have been brief, however, since Leonardo was hard at work painting The Last Supper, which is still there, although only the ghost of what it was, because he painted it not as a fresco, but directly onto the wall, thereby multiplying the chances that his new masterpiece would deteriorate with time. Almost certainly he knew that, but he was in the grip of inspiration, so he got on with the job anyway.

What kind of inspiration, if he didn’t believe in how the story ended? But he did believe in the story’s hero. The picture was already a ruin by the time Shakespeare was born, but even today, when you look at the many-times restored remains, you can see that the figure who occupies the vanishing point of all its perspectives is a concentration of everything that Leonardo knew about the force of human personality. And the same was true even when he painted Christ as a child. The infant Jesus always looks like an athlete in the making.

Michelangelo, who was twenty years younger than Leonardo and outlived him by forty-five years, made Jesus heroic at any age and in all media. In Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Madonna and child now in a church in Bruges, the boy Jesus is already a little tower of strength, and in the famous drawings of the dead Christ rising from the tomb, the figure that floats upwards is no wraith, but the sublime expression of a warrior. In the most famous Michelangelo Pietà, when the dead son lies across the knees of his mother, he is indeed the wreck of man, but it is a man who has been wrecked. Again, it’s a matter for argument whether Michelangelo believed in the heaven he painted around the body of God at the centre of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but there can be no doubt that the personal force of Jesus was the focus of all his attention.

The supernatural visitor had been humanized. It was one of the things that humanism did. When the early painters of the Renaissance began painting religious figures as people instead of icons, a new kind of belief had begun. The centre of attention was switching from the next world to this one, according to the revolutionary conviction that the life that really matters happens between birth and death. The Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, did all they could to fight back, and they were especially fierce on art. The Catholic counterreformation was partly an attempt to pull the artists back into the service of dogma, and in England the Protestant image-breakers weren’t just out to nail idolatry. They wanted to wipe out all suggestions that religion could be reduced to the level of mere humanity.

The Churches survived, they are still here, and there are many people who still believe, in the old sense. But everything the Churches had ever taught came in for half a millennium of questioning, until finally only one thing was left unquestioned. Paradoxically, the humanists, who had begun the process of undermining Christian belief, had reinforced the importance of the personality at its centre.

I know that my redeemer liveth. Well, I doubt if he can redeem me. I wish he could. But I do have faith that he lives on, as an ideal. All the Christian religions are lucky to have him, and those of us who have ceased to be Christians in the old way are lucky to have him too. In these weeks, in all the days of Advent until Christmas Day and from then on until Twelfth Night — the season wherein his birth is celebrated — have been giving him, and will yet give him, much thought. For me, he didn’t need to be crucified in order to prove his capacity for sacrifice. He proved that when he faced the crowd who wanted to stone to death the woman taken in adultery.

It was a turning point in history, because nothing quite like that had ever been recorded before. Since the same crowd of fanatics might very well have stoned him for interrupting their dreadful ceremony, clearly he was brave beyond the imagination of most of us. But it was the generosity of his intervention that set a new mark. He met the same mark again when he promised a place near him in heaven to the whore who had washed his feet. Imagine the whispering abuse he earned for that. Imagine the shouted abuse.

I first heard about these things in Bible class when I was very young, and I can’t think of how the same permanently necessary message about tolerance could have been transmitted in any other way. No matter how intolerant the Churches got in all their years of power, not even when they were burning people by the thousand, they never managed to wipe out the impression of his understanding spirit. Those moments in the Gospel would alone be enough to prove the importance of keeping alive all we can about his story.

We can debate the difficult points of interpretation, hit each other over the head about the truth of what he said here and what he did there, but the essence of his personality still deserves to be cherished as a salvation, a redemption. It won’t, I think, redeem our sins or save our souls for heaven. But it will give us a measure for how we should lead our lives on earth, even if we are bound to fail. I notice that even my friend Christopher Hitchens, who has lately become famous all over again for declaring that religious belief is inimical to human reason and a threat to justice, would still rather like to maintain some of the traditions. Writing beautifully himself, he knows that much of the beauty of the English language has the Bible as its fountain, and that an education without a Bible education is no education.

How the traditions can be maintained without the religious institutions being maintained as well is a question he will no doubt tackle in the course of time, but for now it surely can be said that we should cherish any of the Christian remnants that do not conflict with the merciful and all-comprehending nature of the man whose life on earth was the beginning of it all. Some of the remnants are in ruins, but still too beautiful to lose, like Leonardo’s Last Supper, still being restored even though there is almost nothing left of it to restore except restorations. Other remnants are trying to be ruins, and it takes money to repair them. Ely Cathedral would still be a miracle even if it were to be reduced to the condition of Tintern Abbey, with grass growing in the nave and the sky for a roof. But we would lose the magnificent ceiling, and how can we not find the money to protect that, if we can find the money to lay more runways for more airports to take more people in search of a paradise on earth?

Other remnants are trivial, but vital all the same. During the days of Advent, when our granddaughter came to visit, she would search for a chocolate in one of the pockets of Tommasina, our Advent doll. Made of rag, Tommasina is a lot taller than our granddaughter and has many pockets. For now, the hidden chocolate that somehow always got into one of the many pockets of Tommasina is a sufficient mystery. But the Christmas will come when our granddaughter will want to know more about just whose birthday Christmas is, and an important part of her upbringing will begin. Her parents are both believers in the classic sense, but it might be that their daughter will one day become an unbeliever, as I did. She might not believe that Jesus is still alive, in heaven. But there is one important thing that even I will be able to tell her, which is that Jesus, the first great man to be a champion of women, believed in her, and that alone would be sufficient cause to bless every night and day of the season wherein his birth is celebrated. The bird of morning will never sing all night long, but nor, if we are wise, will the memory of that man ever die.


Greatly daring, the BBC still allowed the odd mention of Jesus during the Christmas period, although there was always the chance that somebody, if sufficiently provoked, would put in a planning application to turn the lobby of Broadcasting House into a mosque. There is no religion that I believe in, but I have a different way of not believing in Christianity than of not believing in, say, Islam. This doesn’t mean that I am a Christian agnostic, but it does mean that I am not an atheist along the lines of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. That I am an atheist goes without saying, and on the whole I would rather not say it, because as a position it holds scarcely any interest in itself. More interesting, to me at any rate, is that I am an ex-Christian atheist whose unbelief is consciously informed by the Christian heritage. So really the question of proselytizing for my irreligious convictions never comes up, because I would rather that other people, should they arrive at the same state, did so under their own steam. It’s a case of self-persuasion being the only kind of persuasion that matters.

When Dr Johnson said that it was not the act of a gentleman to shake someone in his faith, he missed the opportunity to say that it was the act of a bore. Via YouTube I watched my friend Hitchens preaching his godless creed many times, and it was the only theme on which he was ever less than thrilling. As for Dawkins, it is remarkable how a man so brilliant can be content to sound so trite. The contention that a God who might intervene in human affairs does not exist is so manifestly irrefutable that it scarcely bears saying even once. But sometimes clever people get bitten by a bug. They become worried that a truth which has come to them like a revelation might not have struck you with sufficient force, even though you, too, profess to agree with it. Thus I once spent a delightful hour at the dinner table with David Hockney. The dessert was finished but the coffee was still being brought around for unlimited refills, and in those days smoking at the table was still permitted. A world-champion smoker, Hockney was pleased to meet a contender for the title. Nothing could injure the easy conviviality, but I’m bound to say that it would have been even more perfect if Hockney had accepted my agreement to his proposition that Picasso was a great painter. Yes, I assured him, I knew that. ‘No,’ said Hockney, in a kind of evangelistic desperation, ‘Picasso was a great painter.’ He thought I didn’t really get it.

In the same way, the otherwise scintillating Dawkins is likely to suspect that we have not really taken in the news about the non-existence of God. Dawkins should be given credit, though, for his integrity. Once, in conversation with him on stage in Edinburgh, I argued that the mass of believers in the various religions might conceivably behave worse if they were deprived of a deity to believe in. Dawkins pointed out that he didn’t proclaim the non-existence of God in order to make the world better. He proclaimed it because it was true. Hard to argue with that, except to say that it might be where the argument starts. I hasten to add that it was he, and not I, who wrote The Blind Watchmaker, and that we should be slow to award ourselves prizes when we detect a quirk in the head of a genius. Newton was utterly batty on the subject of chronology, but on the whole it’s wiser to note that he said useful things about celestial mechanics.