Jesus and Socrates

(This is Neil.) The Anglican priest, Nicholas Sagovsky, is in the middle of a three-part sermon series at Westminster Abbey on Jesus and Socrates. The first sermon, delivered on October 7, concerns Socrates’ dialogue with Euthyphro, a man who is pursuing a murder suit against his own father (“You will think me mad when I tell you”). Euthyphro clearly believes that he is in the right, and, when queried by Socrates, claims, after initially giving an ostensive definition, that his action is pious because it pleases the gods. (He will eventually have to clarify that it is pious because it pleases all the gods.) But Socrates then asks him the really central question, “Does it please the gods because it is right, or is it right because it pleases the gods?”

Sagovsky says about this:

Supposing we could say, as Plato who wrote this dialogue did, that something was pleasing to the gods because it was right. We would be saying there was a separate source of right that the gods recognized but which was different from them. How could there be a source of right which transcended the gods? Where would it have come from? Wouldn’t that mean the gods weren’t really gods? Perhaps then, we have to put the idea the other way round. We have to say that right is right because it is pleasing to the gods. This raises two further questions: supposing the gods don’t all agree on what is right? How then can we tell what is really right? And, should we always just accept that what the gods decree to be right really is so?

How does the Christian respond to Socrates’ question? Should we suggest that there is a “source of right” which transcends God? Or is something right because it is pleasing to God? Fr Sagovsky suggests that we have to say that something is right because God takes pleasure in it. Otherwise, we reduce revelation to merely the confirmation, conceivably the intensification, of our previously held convictions – perhaps, we might say, the radical embrace of egalitarianism, or, on the other hand, the conservative espousal of hierarchy, patriarchy, and legitimacy. In any case, God is somehow left as less than God to us, limited to what we, left to our own resources, could previously imagine as being “right.”

The position that something is right because it pleases God shouldn’t leave us vulnerable to becoming arbitrarily violent or sectarian, not if we understand who God really is. Also, I don’t think that this forces us into some sort of a fideist position. As we become what Sagovsky describes as “open to the slow process of education by which God moulds our sense of right and wrong,” we then will surely recognize some degree of continuity, as well as discontinuity, with what we had previously been able to understand (now identifiable as “rays of light” or “seeds of the Word”).

Ultimately, then, we have to give a Christological account of right and wrong. Here is Nicholas Sagovsky:

[I]f we believe in one God rather than many gods, and we think that our sense of right comes from God, does it come from God because God delights in and promotes what is in and of itself right, or are certain things right because they are what God delights in and what God promotes? I don’t see how for a Christian it can be anything other than the latter: certain things are right because they are what God delights in and what God promotes. What is right is related to who God is. For a Christian, our sense of right and wrong has to be rooted and grounded in God himself. It can’t have a free-floating life of its own. How often, though, do we ask God to endorse what we think is right, rather than continue with the struggle truly to ground our sense of right in God Himself. But if that is what as Christians we have to do, this makes the place of prayer and the Holy Spirit vitally important. As Christians, we need to be open to the slow process of education by which God moulds our sense of right and wrong, so that the things we once thought were right (like slavery) are no longer see as right and the things we once thought wrong (like critical study of the Bible) no longer seem wrong.

At the centre of Christianity … is the belief that Jesus makes plain the fundamentals about right and wrong. His teachings are right because he tells us truly what God delights in and what God promotes – he bears faithful witness to the character of God. And his teaching is not just a matter of the intellect. Like Socrates, Jesus bears witness in his own life and death to a sense of priorities and purposes in life, a sense of right and wrong, that is radically different from those of our everyday lives.

Socrates raises the question ‘How do you know that what you think is right really is right?’ As Christians we answer, ’Because we have been shown by Jesus what pleases God.’ When we say that it is right to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves, we are not making an educated guess. When we say that the highest human good is self-giving love, we are not talking about a life-style option, or something that might be true. This at the heart of what Jesus teaches and at the heart of his identity – so it is true in any culture and at any time. It is a bold claim, a claim of faith, but who ever said that the Christian faith was not bold in the claims that it makes?

In a sermon given the next week, Fr Sagovsky notes the most obvious parallel between Jesus and Socrates – they were both killed by the state. They both show us that the apparent enemy of a community might ironically be its pillar. Socrates, the self-proclaimed gadfly, is predictably sentenced to death, but, instead of asking for clemency, he proposes that his punishment should be to receive a pension from the state. The same actions that are meant to wake up his fellow citizens inevitably lead to the charges of corrupting the youth, so it is the condemned man who deserves gratitude and honor. Likewise, Jesus’ obedience to the Father – in which we are called to participate – inevitably leads to his own death at our hands, so that the man who is executed is the one who must be worshipped.

Fr Sagovsky writes:

It is John’s Gospel that makes clear how Jesus stands for something other and higher than those around him. As a profoundly free man, morally he towers over his accusers. Like Socrates, he is judged a blasphemer by the political and religious authorities of his time. When Jesus is judged by Pilate, we can see that Pilate is himself judged by the judgment that he makes. Jesus is executed as an enemy of the state, a criminal of the lowest type. Precisely because he is prepared to take the lowest place, to take his place on the gallows, he is, to his followers, worthy of the highest honour, and to his enemies he remains a danger even today. The Gospel presents us with no middle way: either he should be executed or worshipped.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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