MY favourite philosopher is the atheist David Hume. I love him not for his atheism but for sayings such as: ‘Be a philosopher, but first be a human being.’
Jesus was no philosopher. But he was certainly a human being and we see his humanity in the gospels. If we read them with care, they allow us to look into his face. It is possible to see Christ directly and to draw near to him. But it needs imagination. And imagination has a bad name – like when my dad used to say I had a vivid imagination. He meant it as a complaint.
Imagination is a gift of God, along with faith, hope and charity. One of the most revelatory imaginations in English poetry belonged to Samuel Coleridge. He defined imagination as ‘that willing suspension of disbelief which constitutes poetic faith’. It’s just right to see the words poetic and faith rubbing up against each other like that. For poetry is a kind of faith. The word for poetry in Greek means both doing something and making something. When we make a successful poem we are not taking leave of reality but bringing reality closer.
The language of the gospel-writers is some of the best poetry we have. The poetry of the gospels is true, sparse, direct and it creates a whole world. You don’t find many florid adjectives in the gospels, or descriptions of the weather. And here’s a thing: you don’t get much speculation about how people were feeling. In the gospels, souls are matters not for psychoanalysis or vile introspection. Souls are worn on sleeves. The gospels show us Jesus wearing his soul on his sleeve. Always. In his every meeting with man, woman and child. In his anguished prayers to the Father.
Come, then, with your imagination on full beam. The vision of Jesus in the gospels is raw and edgy and untidy and it doesn’t leave out the bits that make us wonder what’s going on. Think of that story about the boy Jesus when he stayed behind in the temple. The ill-tempered exchange with his mother – she says: ‘Why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.’ He replies: ‘How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my father’s business?’
Hear the piping soprano intonation of the 12-year-old Son of God in that. Look at the scene and you see that there’s no phoney religious picture being drawn here. The boy was insolent and his mother was livid. Both mother and son are real. You can, if you try, see their faces.
Then there’s that wedding at Cana. If the wet-nellie modern versions of the Bible had really wanted to give us modern English here, they would have said something like: ‘There he was on a ten-day booze-up with his mates and his mother comes in pestering him. “They have no wine!” And his reply, “Woman, what’s that to do with me?”’
Open your imagination and see that scene. She embarrasses him in front of his friends and his reply is a putdown in front of all her guests. This is telling it like it is. Here’s no Cathedral-bookshop schmaltzy religious postcard. Here is a very uneasy exchange. Because we know that such exchanges happen in families, we can see the truth of it. The marvellous thing about that straight talking is that it helps us understand that the gospel-writer is telling the truth when he comes to the miracle as well.
‘And once they bring out a dead man; and he was the only son of his mother; and she was a widow.’ Now shut your eyes and watch what happens next. It says that the people stood still. That would be the sort of stillness like patience on a monument, a stillness you could hear and feel. There would be an exchange of looks between Jesus and this woman. There is no extravagant counselling service given to her. He says just two words:
It’s astonishing. What was she supposed to do, for God’s sake? She’d lost her husband. And now her only son. And he says: ‘Weep not.’ You have to see his face when he says this. And then the miracle again told with such understatement: ‘And he that was dead sat up. And he delivered him to his mother.’
The gospels are not humanistic. They are not Renan’s Vie de Jesus. They are natural tales in a supernatural context. But it’s not all compassion and tenderness. Remember when Peter confessed: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ A rosy moment if ever there was one. But when in the next breath Peter denies that there is any need for Christ to be crucified, Jesus turns to him and says: ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’
What about the look on his face then?
Or when he says: ‘Think not that I come to bring peace but a sword.’
Or when he curses the fig tree. Or when he says: ‘And these shall go into everlasting punishment.’
When he takes a whip to those selling pigeons in the temple, hear the crack of the whip. See the flashing of it in front of the court of the temple. And all against a sky getting ready for Good Friday.
See Jesus with Mary Magdalene. This is the sinner who washes his feet and dries them with her hair. There is the ointment in the alabaster box – ointment for his anointing unto death. She takes down his broken body from the cross. She goes to the sepulchre on the first day of the week to anoint his corpse. She has touched him when scarcely anyone else has. Think then of the blinding hurt this woman of all women must have felt when he reveals himself to her in the Easter Garden and speaks but one word so tenderly – her name: ‘Mary!’
Naturally, she goes to hold him. And what does he say? ‘Don’t touch me!’
Go into the Garden of Gethsemane when he sweats blood. See his face turned upwards when he says: ‘O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.’
In a garden. In the darkness. By himself. You have only to close your eyes to see it. That bloodied face when he says: ‘Forgive them, dad – they don’t know what they’re doing!’
So we can see Jesus. We see him through God’s gift of imagination and poetic faith. I suppose what I’ve been asking you to do is meditate. Take these stories and visions and picture them, hear them, feel them and they will become real to you. This is what believing in Jesus means, for belief is not a set of propositions to be argued about. Belief is entering into a world. If you want your belief in Jesus to be strengthened – when you wish you could draw closer to him – just practise this imaginative kind of prayer. And he will come to you and be nearer to you than your own self. There is such a thing as true make-believe. It is real and it is the imaginative, poetic suspension of disbelief.
Look towards him and you will see him and he will be with you always. For he says: ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke unto you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls.’