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The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a great moral teacher?, by Julian Baggini

31 December 2020

Robin Gill considers what a humanist makes of Christ’s teaching

SURPRISINGLY, the answer to the question raised in the subtitle of this fascinating book is “Yes”. This is surprising because the journalist and philosopher Julian Baggini is a vocal advocate of secular humanism. I feared that this might be another rant from the New Atheists. But it is not. It is a nicely written and mostly affectionate account of Jesus’s moral teaching gleaned from the Gospels, shorn, however, of any appeal to the Divine. Baggini has read the Gospels sympathetically and consulted a number of articulate Christians — such as Keith Ward, John Cottingham, and the staff at Theos — and distances himself nicely from some of the tactics of more strident atheists.

Instead, he produces an abbreviated, albeit amateur, version of the Gospels. He makes some obvious blunders — for example, accepting John 8.1-11 uncritically as an authentic and key part of Jesus’s teaching (he shows little knowledge of textual criticism) — and he occasionally lectures Christians on our failure to live up to Jesus’s high moral standards. Yet his affection for (a thoroughly human) Jesus shines through his easy-to-read prose.

For Baggini, “At the root of Jesus’s moral teaching is the need to cultivate a good will. . . True Christian morality is not a long list of do’s and don’ts. It is a challenge to respond with love to the specific needs of every individual situation”. He is impressed by Jesus’s attention to the poor, to outcasts and to the powerless, by his radical emphasis upon forgiveness, compassion, and humility, and by his determined and costly resistance to evil. These are values and virtues that, Baggini believes, can and should be embraced by secular humanists.

In addition, he claims that an atheist’s understanding of Jesus’s teaching can have advantages over that of a Christian. For instance, he argues that those passages in the Gospels which presume divine retribution are better understood as the purely human consequences of immoral actions. He has a point here; many Christians today follow our Victorian predecessors in rejecting retributive understandings of God, emphasising, instead, God’s grace (on which Baggini is less convincing).

Nevertheless, he admits that atheists also have their weak points, especially on forgiveness and justice: “a religious interpretation of Jesus’s teaching offers us a sense of completeness, of ultimate resolution and salvation. No secular ethic can promise this, certainly not the secularised version of Jesus’s morality. We are left instead with the imperfect, the incomplete and the ultimately unresolved. Justice is never fully done and salvation is not always found.”

In passages like this, I wonder (as I do with Raymond Tallis’s splendid books) whether Baggini is revealing a crucial vulnerability of secular humanists. Many of their values and virtues, commendably, have been transplanted from Judaism and Christianity, but their life-sustaining roots are no longer nurtured by worshipping communities. Their moral passion remains, but it may owe more to their childhood Christianity than they imagine. Baggini admits that he was a fervent Roman Catholic as a teenager. Perhaps he still is more Catholic than he realises.

Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent and Editor of Theology.


The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a great moral teacher?
Julian Baggini
Granta £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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