Chapter 10: Was Jesus an Impractical Idealist?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 10: Was Jesus an Impractical Idealist?

Dear Ted Brown:

I am glad that in your recent letter you agree with me that, sooner or later, speculation and argument should issue in decision and action. You say that you hope -- and sometimes rather confidently expect -- that you will someday decide to be a Christian, but that there are still some issues concerning which you wish to get your thinking clarified before you make up your mind. I can understand that, especially because the problem which you write about in this present letter is such a real one.

Jesus’ ideals are admittedly beautiful, you say. They are lovely and alluring. But are they practical in a world like this? Turning the other cheek, being "meek," becoming "as a little child," going the second mile, loving one’s enemies, feeling blessed "when men revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you," believing that "whoever would be greatest among you must be your servant"--what realistic relevance do such soft attitudes have to this hard, tough, violent world? You say that a friend of yours has recently been exploding his derision of the Sermon on the Mount, for what he calls its sentimental and impractical idealism. Your friend is not the first one who has felt that way. Nietzsche, from whom Hitler drew his philosophy, said that kind of thing over and over again. "I regard Christianity as the most fatal and seductive lie that ever existed," he wrote. From him Hitler learned to scorn what he called "the Jewish Christ-creed with its effeminate pity ethics." And he even said, "To make feeble is the Christian receipt for taming, for ‘civilizing.’"

Let me share with you in this letter my disagreement with Nietzsche and Hitler. I think that Jesus has already turned out to be the supreme realist of history. For example, a leading psychologist of my generation, Dr. Henry C. Link, was alienated from the church for twenty-five years, but he came back again because in his practice he kept running into the realistic truth of Jesus’ insights into man’s inner life. "A great variety of incidents," he wrote, "gradually forced me to realize that the findings of psychology in respect to personality and happiness were largely a rediscovery of old religious truths." No one ever really believes in Jesus until, one way or another, he has that kind of experience. He thinks of Jesus as lovely, alluring, appealing to man’s highest ideals and all that, and then someday he runs head-on into a fact, an incontrovertible fact and a law of life that visibly operates, and there comes to him the surprised but inescapable conviction: Jesus is right! What he said is realistically true! This teaching of his is not wishful idealism, but a fact which man neglects or denies at his peril! Theology or no theology, it is then that a man really believes in Christ.

Consider that incredible beatitude: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." I can imagine your friend guffawing over that. When have the meek inherited the earth? Where are they doing it now? In Jesus’ time it was the Caesars and the Herods who inherited the earth, and it has been so ever since. Well, has it? Think a moment more! Of course, one can read meanings into the word "meek" which will make nonsense of the beatitude. If we mean, Blessed are the Uriah Heeps, that is absurd. But was Jesus a Uriah Heep? Did he ever cringe and fawn? Was he passive, submissive, compliant, lacking spirit, stamina, and moral indignation against wrong? Believe me, the Uriah Heeps don’t get crucified.

Come at that beatitude by way of Jesus’ own character and life, and it is as realistic as the latest news. Indeed, all modern science is founded on it, as Thomas Huxley said: "Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads or you shall learn nothing." That is the quality of mind and character which the beatitude celebrates. Blessed are the humble, the teachable, men and women with minds open to new truth; blessed are the devoted, who escape from proud self-centeredness to give themselves humbly to something greater than themselves; blessed are the souls who find life by losing it in self-commitment to causes they care for more than for themselves -- in that sense nobody except the meek has the slightest chance of inheriting the earth. Vanity, pomposity, and pride in the long run go down the drain. Remember Hitler!

One of the greatest speeches ever made was Samuel Wilberforce’s plea against the slave trade, delivered in the British Parliament. He spoke for three hours and a half to a fascinated audience. Edmund Burke said afterwards, "It equaled anything I have ever heard in modern times, and is not perhaps to be surpassed in the remains of Grecian eloquence." How, then, do you suppose Wilberforce himself felt about this magnificent speech he had delivered? Read this entry made that very day in his diary: "Came to town sadly unfit for work, but by divine grace was enabled to make my motion so as to give satisfaction -- three hours and a half. I had not prepared my language, or even gone over all my matter, but being well acquainted with the whole subject I got on. My breast sore, but de ceteris pretty well. How ought I to labour, if it pleases God to make me able to impress people with a persuasion that I am serious, and to incline them to agree with me." That is humility and it is very powerful. Kipling sang it well:

The tumult and the shouting dies --

The Captains and the Kings depart --

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

An humble and a contrite heart.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget -- lest we forget!

Or consider another statement of Jesus which, you say, your friend particularly dislikes: "He that is greatest among you shall be your servant." Isn’t that fantastic? In a savage world, dominated by the will to power, where brazen greed and ruthless ambition rule, this tenderhearted seer from Galilee, who loved wild flowers and little children, said this romantic and sentimental thing: To be really great one must be a servant. Is that what your friend thinks? He had better look calmly back on human history and think again. After all, who are the really great? Make that estimate not as a Christian or an idealist, but as a plain man. Nobody has a chance of being thought great, after a century has passed, except the distinguished servants of mankind. In Jesus’ time was Caesar really the great man? Ask your friend if he has ever heard anybody sing,

All hail the power of Caesar’s name,

Let angels prostrate fall.

No! "For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" -- that is genuine, realistic, enduring greatness.

In France some years ago they held a popular election to decide who was the most distinguished of all Frenchmen. Who was chosen? Napoleon? He did not have a chance. Louis Pasteur, one of the major founders of modern medicine, was chosen. When he was a boy his schoolteacher wrote this about him: "He is the meekest, smallest, and least promising pupil in my class." A sorry chance he had to be the greatest of all Frenchmen. But, even in his lifetime, on his seventieth birthday, a national holiday was declared, and Pasteur, too ill to speak at the celebration, had his son read his message, and this sentence is the gist of it: "The future will belong not to the conquerors but to the saviors of mankind." That is the solid, down-to-earth, realistic truth.

Or consider Jesus’ injunction that we love our enemies. Is that unrealistic? The Greek word which the New Testament uses for "love" is not soft and sentimental. There is a Greek word, philia, which appears a few times in the New Testament and which implies an affectionate liking for some person, but the grand word for "love" in the New Testament, agápe, means something else altogether -- undiscourageable goodwill. That is the word Paul used in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, and it is the word used in the Gospels. Is undiscourageable goodwill impractical? Look at the alternatives -- anger, ill will, resentment, violence, revenge, hatred -- and see what they are doing in the world!

For one thing, face the harm done by hatred, not only to the one who is hated but to the one who does the hating. If the psychiatrists could get out of their patients the rancorous resentments, angers, hatreds, that have accumulated there, they could well nigh empty half their hospitals. As one of them has written: hatred "is truly the arch-demon of all the little devils who are subversive of joy and destructive of happiness." Quite apart from religious considerations, Jesus was everlastingly right when he told us to maintain undiscourageable goodwill toward our enemies. Everybody knows that Charles Darwin discovered evolution, but that alone does not tell us much about the kind of person Darwin was inside. Listen, however, to two short sentences from his biography: "The friendliness of his character was most apparent in his attitude toward his enemies. In spite of all their vituperations, he never uttered a harsh word against any of them." What do we know now about Darwin? We know a lot, and it is all on the side of health, wholesomeness, a sound mind, and a strong character. Well, that strange realist from Nazareth said that, centuries ago.

Indeed, his realistic truth is being confirmed not only in psychology but in penology. Society’s treatment of its criminal enemies has for centuries been dominated by motives of vengeance and retaliation. Now, however, the pioneering penologists are awake to the fact that this is getting us nowhere. Not vengeance but rehabilitation must be the major objective even in society’s treatment of criminals, and that wiser attitude reflects exactly what Jesus said and did. Listen to Dr. Samuel J. Barrows, one of the leading criminologists of my time: "We speak of Howard, Livingston, Beccaria and others as great penologists who have profoundly influenced modern life; but the principles enunciated and the methods introduced by Jesus seem to me to stamp him as the greatest penologist of any age. He has needed to wait, however, nearly twenty centuries to find his principles and methods recognized in modern law and penology."

To be sure, it is not easy for us to maintain undiscourageable goodwill toward our enemies. In no realm is it easy to be a Christian. One is often reminded of Schubert who, marking one of his symphonies with instructions for the conductor, wrote on the margin, "as loud as possible," and then a few bars later he wrote, "Still louder." Nor does Jesus make goodwill toward our foes seem any easier by the challenging way he pictures it -- turning the other cheek, and going the second mile. Nevertheless, what he is driving at is realistically true: without undiscourageable goodwill there is no hope for mankind.

Consider another of Jesus’ supposed idealisms: his vision of mankind as a family, one God the Father of all, and all men and women his children. Does the world look like that now? Isn’t that a visionary dream? No wonder Renan wrote about Jesus, "Tenderness of heart was in him transformed into infinite sweetness, vague poetry, universal charm." I take it that your friend would agree with that. Upon the contrary, I stand in reverent awe before the way the realistic facts are today confirming what Jesus taught. This is "one world." Every year all mankind inexorably is becoming more and more one community, with the terrific question facing us and our children: Is this world community going to be a family or will it be chaos?

Far from being tenderhearted and beautiful this increasing unification and interdependence of humanity is a frightening fact. I find myself praying, God save mankind from becoming any more closely interrelated until we are better fitted to make the result an earthly home and not an earthly hell. Concerning the organization of the world on Christ’s principles, Charles A. Ellwood, one of our American sociologists, wrote, "It is only such a world which will be found practicable in the long run, if men are to live together. . . . We must have a Christian world, or we shall have social chaos." So, this idea which Jesus taught centuries ago, and which the early church went out into the ancient world to proclaim, that across all lines of race and nation all men are brothers, that "there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man," but that all such dividing lines are to be transcended in the one family of mankind, has now become one of the starkest, most formidable realities that confront our modern world. Our ever swifter means of travel and communication force us to face up to it. Our economic life is crying, Be a family or you will starve. Our concern for physical health is crying, Epidemics know no boundary lines. Our science is saying, All great discoveries and inventions are international. And the threat of nuclear war is, as it were, preaching human brotherhood: Get together, or a single total war will wipe you all out.

Jesus’ teaching visionary and sentimental? Nonsense! The marvel is that he taught truths so basic that every century they become more relevant and realistic. According to some early manuscripts, he himself called the truth he taught a stone: "He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one, it will crush him." That very thing is taking place before our eyes now. The family nature of humanity is a truth on which, so long as we deny it, we break ourselves to pieces.

Do not understand me to be saying that Jesus was not an idealist. Of course he was. A wise idealist is one who in the midst of the actualities, however tough and unpromising they seem, sees and believes in the possibilities. In the thirteenth century Roger Bacon suggested something hitherto unheard of: eyeglasses which, as he said, might prove "helpful to the aged and to those with weak eyes." To his contemporaries that seemed fantastic nonsense, but many of us now do our work only because that possibility turned out to be realistically true. So Jesus was an idealist, seeing possibilities in human life far ahead of the event. That fact, however, should not blind us to the further truth that humanity today faces a situation in which the basic principles of Jesus are not dreams but indispensable necessities. John Bunyan said that in his unregenerate days he used to walk across Bedford Green and fairly smell the sulphurous fumes that came up through the grass roots from the hell he feared. That old theology has gone. But in days like these one sometimes does feel as though he were walking across the thin crust of hell into which we verily might plunge, we and our children and all the choicest values we have cherished. And so seeing the situation, I say to myself, How can I have believed in Christ so tamely, so moderately? Nothing can meet our need but the faiths and principles he stands for. One God, not these tribal gods to be served by mass murder but his one God, Father of all mankind, that and his way of life in undiscourageable goodwill alone can save us. If this sounds to you like a clergyman preaching, take it from an unbeliever, George Bernard Shaw. "I am ready to admit," he writes, "that after contemplating the world and human nature for nearly sixty years, I see no way out of the world’s misery but the way which would have been found by Christ’s will if he had undertaken the work of a modern practical statesman."

This leads me to another of Jesus’ so-called idealisms -- his attitude toward war. Think back to the Roman world in which he said, "All who take the sword will perish by the sword." Could anything have seemed more incredible than that statement? Even yet I meet people who try to dodge it by recalling that Jesus also said, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." If that saying troubles you, read the passage in which it occurs, Matthew 10:34-39. That passage has nothing to do with war; it is all about the way families will be divided by the decision of some members to accept Christ and others to reject him. That Jesus’ picturesque use of "sword" in describing this unhappy split in families is not to be taken literally but symbolically is confirmed by Luke’s account, where the word "division" is used instead of "sword." Jesus on another occasion used the word "sword" symbolically, and even his disciples misunderstood him. It was in his farewell conversation with them, when he was about to die, leaving them to face a tough battle. They would need all their resources, he said: "Let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one." He was saying to those disciples that they were going to have a fight on their hands, but they took him literally: "Look, Lord, here are two swords." Moffatt best translates Jesus’ reply: "Enough! Enough!" he answered. That does not mean that two swords would be enough. It means that he had borne all he could of their misunderstanding. From the beatitude, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God," to the statement in the Garden of Gethsemane, "All who take the sword will perish by the sword," Jesus’ whole ethic and way of life are utterly irreconcilable with war.

How many Christians, in the pulpit and out of it, are perplexed and sometimes dismayed by this fact! When war comes it faces us with a situation in which Jesus’ ethic seems impossible. So in the last World War one American clergyman went into his pulpit on a Sunday and said this: "I am a Christian minister, but I tell you we cannot win this war unless we get mad. Not until every man, woman, and child within sound of my voice tonight would stick a bayonet in the yellow belly of a Jap with holy joy can we expect to win this war." He faced Jesus vs. "realism," and he chose "realism." So, in another area, I have before me a pamphlet, written by a segregationist from Georgia, who professes absolute devotion to Jesus, and then proceeds to twist one passage in the Gospels after another until he reaches his predetermined goal: "The conclusion is inescapable that both in principle and practice Jesus was the most consistent and rigorous Segregationist of whom we have authentic information." In the light of any serious, intelligent reading of the Gospels that of course is ludicrous, but it is easy to see how the writer’s mind worked. To him segregation is a realistic necessity and everything must bow before that.

On the contrary I am convinced that in the long run it is Jesus who will turn out to be the realist. Segregation is doomed to be as dead as the dodo, and war already has reached the point where it means mutual suicide, the destruction of civilization, and quite probably the extermination of the human race. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying, "Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace," he was doubtless foreseeing the destruction of the city, if the militant Zealots launched their threatened rebellion against Rome, and he was right about that. But what would he say now, when the "sword" he talked about has become the nuclear bomb? When he said that those who take the sword will perish by the sword, who could have foreseen what terrific, frightening realism that would prove to be? For centuries men have idolized war, and have treated Jesus’ denunciation of war at the worst with contempt and at the best with polite forgetfulness. Not now, however! We face an inexorable choice -- the elimination of war or the end of civilized life on this planet. That is realism now.

Well, I have enjoyed writing this letter. You may let your friend read it, if you wish to. I cannot see Jesus as a sentimental dreamer. Who more than he knew the ugly facts of life? Who more than he was hated, rejected by his people, betrayed by a friend, spat upon, and crucified? Who better than he knew what base things can come from the black depths of the human heart, dealing as he did with extortioners and prostitutes, the cruelty of the strong and the bigotry of the religious, and feeling over all the tyranny of a vast military empire? But it is he and his teaching that have endured and have again and again, in one field after another, realistically confirmed his saying, "I am the truth."

Cordially yours,