Creating the Morality of Christ
While we can point to the Sermon on the Mount as an originary expression of the “morality of Christ,” we cannot fully arrive at the sense of this morality through a textual analysis alone. Gary Gutting explains why:
Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse us or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it. To profit from its wisdom we need to understand it through traditions of thought and practice within or informed by Christianity. This does not require membership in any particular church, but it does require immersion in the culture and history of the Christian world. In this sense, to forget the church is to forget Jesus.
The moral teaching of Jesus can be reached only by passing through the traditions of thought and practice which have, in their own unique ways, erected methodological frameworks for interpreting Jesus’ words and thereby introduced and fused meaning to those words beyond the “original” meaning a mere textual analysis would uncover. In effect, the traditions of Christianity have reconstituted the meaning given initial creative expression by the uttering and recording of the sermon. In this sense, we can say that Christians have created and recreated the morality of Christ.
Perhaps more interesting, though, is the influence of non-Christians on this history of morality. Returning to Gutting:
Much of the history of Christianity consists of trying to develop a viable way of life from Jesus’ puzzling sayings.
These efforts, moreover, have had to go far beyond interpreting Jesus’ words in their own terms. Augustine and Aquinas, for example, used ideas from Plato, Aristotle and other pre-Christian thinkers to help them understand the “law of love.”
Christian morality owns much to the thought of non-Christians. For this reason, Christianity remains true to itself by remaining open to the thought and practices of others. Christians, I dare to say, are being untrue to their religion when they shun the world and the wisdom it has to offer. Christianity may proclaim the “good news,” but this gospel, in both form and content, owes its life not only to the figure of Jesus Christ and to the ever-searching traditions of the church, but also to the pursuits of truth upon which non-Christians have, in their own ways, creatively embarked.