Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 11, 2021 - Does It Matter?

One of my favorite characters in all of literature is the Bishop from Victor Hugo‘s 1862 novel Les Miserables. Also referred to as Monseigneur Bienvenu (meaning, welcome), Bishop Charles Myriel was suddenly elevated from parish priest to his high clerical rank by Napoleon himself after paying him a complement in passing. Having originally learned the basic story of Les Miserables as a stage musical in the 1980’s, I discovered the Bishop in more detail once I read the book upon which the musical was based. 

In the musical, Les Miserables, the Bishop plays a minor but still crucially benevolent role. It was presented in the stage production rather like backstory exposition rather than the fundamental ingredient to the entire novel’s raison d’ĂȘtre; its literal reason for existing. All of the moral choices made in the entire novel by its lead character, Jean Valjean, are based upon his singular night’s exchanges between himself and Bishop Myriel. 

In short summary, out of desperation, Valjean steals some silver from the Bishop, only to be returned in chains by the police. The Bishop fibs to the police that it wasn’t stolen, he gave the silver to the man, but scolded Valjean that he forgot to take the candlesticks too. After the police leave, the Bishop tells Valjean to use the money to become an honest man.

This single generous act, even setting aside the countless other generosities which Victor Hugo uses at length to paint the character of this man for his readers, demonstrates every single one of the principles that Jesus taught, but which nearly all of us find impossible to live up to. 

On that single act, I base my life and actions to this day. I don’t mean that as a point of bragging, but as a notification of my sincere attempt to live up to these ideas for living in relationship with one another. 

I needed to see someone behave as the Bishop did—outside of scripture—to understand how to put the teachings into active practice. Why might that be? I had certainly already been exposed to Christian teachings, why hadn’t I yet clearly recognized how to embody them? The fictional person of the Bishop clarified the teachings for me in a way that attending church had not yet managed. 

Monseigneur Bienvenu’s actions were based on the teachings of Jesus, but for all we know Jesus based his teachings on other ideas and traditions as well. For instance, many have recognized the similar character of the teachings of Christ with those of the Buddha, who preceded Jesus by 500 years. Some have postulated that Christ’s missing years were spent in India learning these very traditions. 

Were the parables Jesus told his followers true stories? I wouldn’t think so. But they were used by Jesus as literary devices to demonstrate how to be in good relationship with one another. Were they devices of Jesus’ conceiving? Or had he heard them from someone else and recognized their value in sharing them?

So if one were to ask the daring question: Did Jesus really exist? my reply would be: Does it matter? I mean, sure, within most Christian traditions his actual existence appears to be of great importance, namely for the purpose of reconciling God to all of humanity—and its vast quantities of sin. 

But how can we calculate the hereafter with any certainty? Especially since God doesn’t appear to talk about it all that much. Most of what God teaches people in Scripture, whether via Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, is about how to relate with one another. It’s a subtle bit of advice not to spend all of our time considering the vertical, when our present existence occurs entirely on the horizontal. Scripture is about the human experience. Not really the divine.

Humans always tell narratives in order to teach one another. More often than not those stories are fictional. Their characters are made up out of thin air to demonstrate a point. Do they really need to have literally existed in order for us to find value in them? And what of those individuals whose stories are based in truth, but have since taken on new layers? Are the layers irrelevant? Or has the historical individual become a scaffold for telling an even greater story?

Personally, I believe that Jesus was an actual person who walked this earth. I believe this despite the fact that only one primary historian refers to him, and that was sixty years after the fact. I consider it a leap of faith, but one that is not required in order to practice the things Jesus is reported to have taught. Forgiveness is a good teaching whether or not you believe the teacher was real. That’s what makes them worth their salt.

Furthermore, even if there was a host of archaeological and historical evidence that he actually did exist, we know for a fact that some translations have misrepresented the original teachings to degrees we cannot fathom. History is factually murky. Should we use all of our energy trying to see in the dark? Not likely.

The only fact we have is, that as of this moment, the Bible is in print. There is no evidence to suggest it is in its original form. All we have is what we’ve been given. Even as recently as the 20th century, critical changes in the methods of translation were still occurring. They are probably occurring right now. Which version of the Bible is true if so many of them word things differently? Again the question becomes: Does it matter?

By and large, it does not. Which means we are able to use our gifts of critical thinking and discernment to determine a historical text’s value for ourselves. We can look at a piece of scriptural advice with our own minds to determine if it has value for us. We don’t know anything about the editorial chain of those who have handed it down to us, we only can explore what we have in our hands right now.

If God “wrote” the Bible, as many traditional Christians claim, it must be that God is authoring these constant changes in real time. Which then begs the question: Is that all according to plan?

Regardless of your position on the existence of God, or the divinity of Jesus, the teachings still have value in them. As do those characters who were fictionally devised to live up to them. Take the time to have a look at the words yourself, or listen to some hopeful thinking about it now and then. There are pathways of ease and comfort to be found. 

Thanks be for the writers, for the fiction creators, and those who pull truth out of thin air. If it be in favor of love, a truth lies therein. 

In closing, it's worth noting that my favorite line in the book, at least as regards the tradition of writing about people, is this of Victor Hugo’s: “We do not claim that the portrait herewith presented is probable; we confine ourselves to stating that it resembles the original.”

Good food for thought. 

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