The project of (re-)claiming the wisdom that stands at the core of religious traditions that one did not grow up in is a necessary but difficult one. It is not just the case that such lessons, as exemplified in the major figures of other religions, are not discussed in a (e.g.) Jewish context, but that they are dismissed off-hand as almost self-evidently devoid of truth due to their not being a part of the Jewish tradition.
Jesus, naturally, fit perfectly into this category, as he was not only the expositor of many profound teachings, forming a religion that has been historically oppressive of Jews, he himself was a renegade Jew. The conviction, therefore, that we all have much to learn from his life and teachings, has been a slowly developing one.
Specifically, growing up without a belief in Jesus’ divinity, it has always struck me as difficult to understand how an extremely popular religion was born out of the story of one man’s suffering and persecution at the hands of the local authorities. Jesus died for his ideals — a fact that can be quite inspiring, but I was still missing a key component, as not every inspiring idea leads to a religion that is known the world over, two-thousand years later. Judaism’s major story of oppression — the Exodus — seems to teach a different lesson, namely that God will rescue those whom God favours. While God’s Chosen People were enslaved for four-hundred years, the story makes clear that there is a happy ending. A fundamental myth — ‘myth’ in the sense of a story that weaves through the fabric of a belief system, in this case a religion — that places at the center God’s Son dying at, rather than being saved from, the hands of the oppressors, requires a different lens, one that I had not found in the Judaism I was raised with.
I think I have now found that lens, though not in a traditional Jewish source, by any means. Rather, it was through reading the atheist Jew Alain de Botton’s book, that I have come to understand the universal message imparted through the life of Jesus. As he explains:
“In the spring of 1512, Mattias Grünewald began work on an altarpiece for the Monastery of St Anthony in Isenheim, in north-eastern France. The monks of this order specialized in tending to the sick, and most particularly to those afflicted with ergotism, or St Anthony’s fire, a usually fatal disease which causes seizures, hallucinations and gangrene. Once the work was ready, it became customary for patients, on their arrival at the monastery, to be taken to the chapel to see it, so that they might understand that in the suffering they were now enduring, they had once been equalled, and perhaps exceeded, by God’s own son.
It is fundamental to the power of the Christian story that Jesus died in more or less the greatest agony ever experienced by anyone. He thus offers all human beings, however racked by illness and grief, evidence that they are not alone in their condition — sparing them, if not suffering itself, then at least the defeated feeling that they have been singled out for unusual punishment.
Jesus’s story is a register of pain — betrayal, loneliness, self-doubt, torture — through which our own anguish can be mirrored and contextualized, and our impressions of its rarity corrected” (emphasis added).
This is a radically different way to comprehend Jesus’ story than measuring it in relation to that of the Exodus. Jesus’ life is not a lesson in national redemption, but in pain and the human need for companionship and love while experiencing pain, which we all have. The lesson of Jesus’ life and death — as interpreted by de Botton — is not one of a revolutionary opposing the state, a la the June Rebellion depicted in Les Miserables. That would be a defeatist message, if God’s own Son could not overturn that oppressive state structures (to phrase it in modern terms). However, if the story is read as highlighting the communion that God feels towards every one of us, especially in our darkest hours, it can strike a deep chord and flourish for millennia.