Reading the words of Jesus as strictly adherent to the requirements of moral reason (see Religion Within the Limits of Reason) makes for a powerful and cogent interpretation of Jesus' life and death. Time and again in every gospel he refuses to declare himself the prophesized "Son of man." We should take him at his word: that he was not certain. Uniquely possessed of moral insight, he cannot deny he is the Christ (as most of us can) but, being a man, neither can he confirm it. When John the Baptist inquires from prison whether Jesus is Christ, Jesus says to tell John of his words and deeds. His sermons are moral genius. Many come to him believing they will be healed, and are. "You decide." Consistent with the fundamental principle of moral reason (follow most value) Jesus dedicates himself to the possibility that he is Christ, but he never violates the limits of what he can honestly assert. He has evidence, but not proof. Asked by the high priests if he is Christ Jesus repeats his stock answer: "You say that I am."
What he is willing to assert (and what gets him crucified) is that: "[T]he Son of man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God." (Luke, 22:69.) This could just be a profession by Jesus that he embraces the Jewish religion and its prophesies. The prophesized "Son of man" will sit at the hand of God. Yet clearly Jesus can picture himself in this role. How? How can he--by his own insistence, possibly just a man--envision himself at the hand of God, partaking of God's wisdom and judgement? Easy. By following moral reason, because moral reason, enabling progress in the discovery of value, implies what Kant maintained: that there is one moral terrain.
As Kant saw it, the orders of angels can comprehend progressively more of this terrain than us (while God comprehends all), but even though man cannot see as much as higher beings, what man sees is a part of what higher beings see. With our limited range there is comparatively little we can say with certainty about the value of things or about what matters more than what. In particular, to avoid asserting more than we have grounds to assert, our assertions of right typically need to tightly circumscribed. Nevertheless, those circumscribed statements of right that we do have grounds to assert are valid, and if there is a God then His judgement, while extending much further than our own, will coincide with what we have grounds to assert.
On this view, Jesus' claim that the Son of man will sit on the right hand of the Power of Heaven is just an assertion of the validity of human moral grasp, so long as we are honest about what we have grounds to assert. Moral failing then is the failure to abide by honest reason. It is morally culpable because the underlying principle is honesty, which all can choose to follow or ignore. We are all born sinners in that we are prone to follow, not just honest reason, but also biased reason--making the best case one can for what one thinks will be the advantageous conclusion. Instead of following reason we sometimes usurp its leadership. Thus blinded, we are prone to declare any evil good or wreak any havoc.
Jesus saw that the path to right and good was moral honesty. Consider his words to Pilate, according to John: "I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." Pilate did not understand. He asked: "What truth?" And Jesus spoke no more. He had already answered that question. What truth? The truth. That is, honesty. He would abide by the requirement of honest reason and not overstep what he had grounds to assert.
It is an arresting coincidence that his adherence to the limits of what he could assert (his unwillingness to deny to the priests that he was Christ) is what led to his crucifixion. Thus it turns out that he did die for our sins (exampling renunciation of our original sin) whether he was Christ or not.
Those who are interested in apocalyptic scripture will be interested to note that in the Revelation of John the antichrists are defined as those who assert that Jesus was not Christ -- just what Jesus died for refusing to do -- so the definition is appropriate in a literal sense. The antichrists are those who assert what they have not the grounds to assert. They are the violators of honest reason.
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Date Last Modified: 8/27/99
Copyright Alec Rawls © 1998