If Jesus wasn’t divine, why should we particularly care what he said? Why pay any more attention to him than to any other ethical thinker?
I'm not a theologian or a philosopher. I'm a pew-sitter, a technology lawyer with a science background. I don't claim any special expertise in matters spiritual.
I do claim to know something about how to analyze evidence and figure out what kind of a story it tells. The following analysis will no doubt strike theologians as sophomoric and unsophisticated. But it seems to fit the evidence:
Jesus urged us to love God, love our neighbors as ourselves, and repent. In today's scientific era, we can get a better appreciation of this missive, from a purely rationalist perspective.
The evidence suggests that
- Our universe had an origin, currently thought to have been some 13.7 billion years ago. Its physical laws seem to be remarkably fine-tuned. We can infer that a Creator had a hand in it somehow, in some way that we don't nearly understand;
- Over time, the universe seems to be consistently increasing in organization and "goodness." Of course there have been setbacks, sometimes grave ones. But if you plot the data points, so to speak, the overall curve is definitely upward. See generally science writer Robert Wright’s Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny;
- Notwithstanding the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the universe has not degenerated into complete chaos and entropy. It's not unreasonable to infer that perhaps the Creator is continuing to supervise the project;
- In this increase in goodness, two of the fundamental forces at work are cooperation and reciprocal altruism -- love, if you will. Without those things, it's hard to imagine how any society (human or animal) could have progressed at all (see Wright again);
- These things suggest that, when we love our neighbors as ourselves (and conduct ourselves accordingly), we appear to be contributing just a bit to a "construction project" of unimaginable scope;
- We can barely glimpse the purpose of the project. But the universe's consistent overall increase in goodness suggests that the purpose must be something truly wonderful;
- There are a lot of stories about people seeing, hearing, and even touching deceased loved ones. Both my mother and my grandmother had such experiences while wide awake. I don't yet know much about this area, often referred to as after-death communication. But such stories certainly give us empirical reasons to suspect there may be some kind of life after death;
- For reasons I haven't fully worked out in my mind, it's not unreasonable to infer that the Creator might be at least somewhat analogous to a loving parent;
So the Jesus of the Gospels is telling us, in effect: Here's your chance to join the hottest project in the universe, working for the Creator himself, whom we call God the Father. (Cf. the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Matt. 20:1-16.) Whatever else the man from Galilee may have proclaimed about his mission, the end-times, and the like, it's pretty clear that he taught at least this much.
The specific job Jesus tells us to do can be easy at times, and at other times it can be incredibly hard:
- Put God and his mission first in your life;
- Work on discerning God's desires for that mission as best you can. You're not likely ever to get it completely right. But keep working at it anyway.
- In trying to discern God's desires, make use of all the resources at your command. Remember that those resources include, not just your own observations and reason and experience, but also those of the community present and past.
It's important to use all these resources, because history gives us ample evidence that:
- None of us has all the answers;
- Much of what we think we know, may well prove to be incomplete or flat-out wrong;
- Insight seems to have been parceled out among us, sort of like distributed processing in computer science;
- None of us has all the answers;
- Love your neighbor as yourself – which means anyone who crosses your path, not just your fellow tribesman;
- Be humbly attentive to whether your life might be getting out of alignment with your best estimate of God’s will. If if seems to be, then make a "course correction" to change your mind and heart and life. That is to say: Repent;
- Repeat as necessary, trusting in God that things will eventually work out unimaginably well. Jesus provided a shining example, trusting in God even unto death.
As I say, the foregoing will probably strike theologians as sophomoric. To some it may sound new-agey. But it's straight out of the Gospels. To me it's an awesome message, more so than anything else I can imagine. It's something to which I can readily commit my life. It's why I call myself a follower of Jesus -- a Christian.