I recently promised to report back on any answers that I received, to the question that I posed towards my Christian friends. Well, I have had my first answer and it is from Father Gerry O’Connor. I’ve met with Father Gerry before and he’s an absolute gentleman (although we have some differing views on Christianity).
Father Gerry is a Redemptorist Roman Catholic priest. He’s also a leading figure within the Association of Catholic Priests. As such, Father Gerry is a person of substance who is no stranger to debate and is very knowledgable about the teachings of Jesus.
As a quick reminder, the question I had asked was:
Is there any teaching of Jesus Christ, which is neither immoral nor a banal plagiarism of pre-existing messages?
I had suggested that all of the admirable teachings of Jesus were simple restatements of existing ethics, which would have been familiar to most people at the time. Furthermore, I also suggested that everything Jesus taught which was genuinely novel and original, was at the same time grossly immoral. As such, my hypothesis is that all of the moral teachings of Jesus are either totally unethical or else banal plagiarisms. Hardly the stuff of an omniscient and divine creator of the universe.
John: Can you help? I’m interested to know if there’s an answer to this honest question about Christianity.
Father Gerry: Jesus completes the portrait of God, the earlier gurus & prophets etc. all contributed with their artistic and handy work to the portrait.
John: Thanks Gerry. I think I’ve covered that point in terms of Jesus as the Messiah that fulfils the Jewish prophecies. Do you agree?
Father Gerry: That’s certainly part of the narrative.
John: You agree then that the ministry of Jesus contained only immorality and banal plagiarism … or if not … what did I miss?
Father Gerry: I don’t agree – can I suggest you read Raymond Browne’s Birth and Death of a Messiah and Meir’s series Marginal Jew.
John: Thanks Gerry. I’ve read the entire New Testament more than once. Which verses are neither immoral nor banal plagiarism?
Father Gerry: What academic tools did you use in your several readings of the New Testament?
John: I assumed that god wants to say something to me in scripture and that I’m capable of basic comprehension, then I read it. Are you suggesting Gerry that you are aware of some secret code, without which the real meaning of scripture will escape me? By the way, if you are aware of any verses that are neither banal plagiarism nor immoral … perhaps you could just tell me?
Father Gerry: No John. I read scripture to be nourished and inspired. You read it as an opponent of religion, so as to ridicule.
John: I’m not ridiculing. I’m asking a simple question. Which verses are neither plagiarism nor immoral? Do you have an answer?
Father Gerry: You don’t believe in God so why try to lure me into a conversation about god speaking to you? To hear you have to listen. The first act of love is listening.
John: Okay … well then perhaps you could listen to the question I’m asking and make an effort to offer an answer?
Father Gerry: We cannot go through the New Testament line by line on Twitter.
John: I’m not asking you to. I’m asking you to refer to one single verse or teaching that isn’t either immoral or plagiarism.
Father Gerry: To argue that to love your neighbour is immoral is just not reasonable – and I am not giving time to such assertions.
John: I didn’t argue that such a teaching is immoral. I argued that it is a banal plagiarism of Rabbi Hillel. If Jesus is divine and “completes a portrait of god”, shouldn’t we be surprised that he has nothing original to say?
Father Gerry: The need was not for originality, as revelation pre-existed Jesus. You are obsessed about particular words or texts without an openness to link word and deed and mission – the indiscriminate divine welcome characterises the reign of God as shared by Jesus.
John: I’m not obsessed. I just asked a simple question about originality and you’ve now (eventually) confirmed there is none. It has come to something when reading the gospels and asking simple questions, elicits criticism from priests.
Father Gerry: You are very like the Vatican of old with its focus on moral teaching, there is more to religion than moral teaching. Jesus shared the moral teaching long established and referenced in the Old Testament in a culturally relevant way connecting with ordinary people’s daily lives.
John: I didn’t said that religion is limited only to moral teaching. It’s true though that my question relates to the moral teaching of Jesus (I didn’t think this area was out of bounds). So you accept Jesus offered no novel or original moral teaching … rather, Jesus presented old ideas again in a different context. Correct?
Father Gerry: Jesus through teaching, action and deed completed a portrait of God.
John: Yes. You’ve said that. You’ve also said that this was simply a re-statement of Old Testament ideas in a contemporary context. Correct?
This was the end of the discussion. I don’t think we managed to find any moral teaching of Jesus that wasn’t already well understood in the region before Jesus was born. The implication of this is that the creator of the universe spent three years teaching morals to humanity, without managing to offer a single original ethical thought. In fact, he met a population within which slavery, homophobia and misogyny were endemic and managed to leave humanity with a New Testament that is replete with new pro-slavery, homophobic and misogynist verses.
Jesus was indeed completing the “portrait of a god” … but the god that he depicted seems to have a lot in common with the prejudices and bigotries that were commonplace in the Middle East during the Iron Age. This is a very strange source from which to plagiarise.
National Committee, Atheist Ireland
Secretary, Atheist Alliance International