A question of Fundamentals

Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Stations of the Resurrection
John 21.15-21

There is nobody in the New Testament, with the exception of Saint Paul, who has been subjected to more sham psychology than Saint Peter; and, as if that were not enough, he has also been scapegoated for all the cowardice of the Disciples faced with the trial and Crucifixion of Jesus.

At the moment none but the very young or foolhardy are free from the fear of sudden death. We do not need to conjure any fancy psychological theories to explain our extreme cautiousness. Or, to look at events from a different angle, we don't know why Jesus' followers were not arrested, tried and executed although the likelihood is that Jesus' pacifism, compared to other self-proclaimed Messiahs, saved them; but Peter was not to know that. At least he followed Jesus, if only at a distance, but had then completely lost it. Who would not?

Even if the last Chapter of John, in which this incident occurs, is a late addition, this looks like an important piece of unfinished business. We have known all along that Peter is to be the leader of the movement which perpetuates the teaching of Jesus, so without this passage Peter's leadership would surely have been in doubt.

Jesus' instructions to Peter are very simple, based on the imagery of the Good Shepherd in John Chapter 10, and reaching back to Psalm 23, Jeremiah 23 (also 3.12 6.3 10.21 12.10 &c) and Ezekiel 34: Peter is to feed the lambs and sheep, contrasting this humble but necessary occupation with the corruption of Israel and Judeah's would-be shepherds, sacred and secular.

The relationship between shepherds and their flocks is inter-dependent, not calling for grandeur nor yet for an impossibly high standard of behaviour. This is a flawed shepherd leading sheep who easily go astray, not to harm others so much as to harm themselves. After a lifetime of exercising flawed leadership I have come to the conclusion that most of us never do anything worth a footnote, let alone a monument; the best that can be said for us is that we have stopped people doing things that are unwise and which more often than not endanger themselves.

But the root question which Peter's life raises for Christians is: was he fundamentally good but flawed or fundamentally wicked and morally helpless?

The Christian answer to that question is apparently theological but it turns out to be much more a matter of philosophy, politics and temperament. We are, according to most Christians, fundamentally evil and without the death of Jesus we would be morally helpless but the matter is by no means that simple. Jesus acknowledged that human beings were capable of individual and collective sinful acts but he never said that anyone - not even the most wicked - was fundamentally wicked; he, like Saint Paul after him, identified evil as a force external to humanity. He had come to save the Chosen People from their sin of idolatry, generated by this evil force, and to save us, his followers as, if you like, collateral beneficiaries but, even then, there was no notion that his followers, as morally helpless, could do nothing for themselves.

The fundamental issue is philosophical and it goes back to Plato and his most brilliant pupil, Aristotle. Plato believed that everything - all animate and inanimate objects - were imperfect copies of an ideal form of each object. Human beings, then, among everything else, were fundamentally imperfect. Aristotle, on the other hand, explained how people were fundamentally good and were capable of leading virtuous and happy lives.

After the death of Jesus a wave of Gnosticism, approximately based on Plato, swept the Greco-Roman world. Its main feature was that it ranked the spiritual over the physical, thinking of the human body as fundamentally corrupt. In spite of its heretical status, this idea was then taken up by the most influential theologian, after Saint Paul, of the first thousand years of Christianity, Saint Augustine who came up with the idea - with no Biblical warrant whatsoever - of original sin. Saint Thomas Aquinas briefly revived the cause of Aristotle in the late Middle ages but the Reformation, based on Martin Luther's reading of Saint Augustine, took us right back to the fundamental premise that we are all basically wicked.

In his latest book Rutger Bregman*, basing his thesis partly on actual, as opposed to doctrinal, Christianity but more largely on scientific research, says that, in spite of 20th Century mass atrocities like the Shoah, human beings are fundamentally good although capable of great wickedness. He goes on to say - and here we have to be really careful - that if we characterise ourselves as fundamentally one thing or the other, we tend to self-fulfil our prophesies, so that if we all think we are all wicked then we are likely to increase our degree of wickedness. We also know that much of the wickedness we do stems from wickedness done to us and we know that how our brains are structured may affect our behaviour. We know less, on the other hand, about the boundary between wickedness and sickness.

Bregman raises long-term, fundamental questions but, in the short-term, we should note that, in considering the raising of the lock-down, our Government has already heavily hinted at the fundamental idleness and low moral worth of poor people. It suits the rich and powerful, for all their excess, to characterise the poor and weak as fundamentally idle, anti-social and therefore worthless. Christianity must be very careful not to collaborate, either actively, or even passively, with this shocking stereotype. And we should all read Bregman's book as a corrective to Augustinian dystopian outlook.

* Bregman, Rutger: Humanity: A Hopeful History