Humankind’s faith systems most often seems to find themselves stretched by the tension between accepting and dealing with the reality of the world around us, and being true to the higher calling to holiness or transcendence. This problem is as old as the religious instinct inside humankind, and shows no sign of going away any time soon.
For example, we have the Sermon on the Mount. This is both the most famous and the most demanding of Jesus’ teaching. Who, for example, would care to turn the other cheek to one’s enemy (Mt. 5:39), or give away not only one’s coat but also one’s shirt to someone who asks for it (v. 40)? Who really wants to beleive that anger is no better than murder (v. 22), or that lust is akin the very act of adultery itself (v. 28)? These teachings are too hard to bear, especailly because they require an attention to the internal, unseen world. Deepak Chopra, in his book The Third Jesus, asks, “Why are Jesus’ teachings [as traditonally understood] impossible to live by?” (1). The typical Christian answer would be: because of original sin and the unregenerate condition of our souls. But no, Chopra believes that what “Jesus taught is much more radical and at the same time mystical” (1), and goes on to offer his idea about Jesus’ true teaching being not about sin and salvation, as the Christian tradition has largely understood it, but about being reborn into “God-consciousness.”
And so we reinterpret Jesus teachings, claiming that we are trying to get at what Jesus really meant. In the interest of finding out what Jesus really meant, some have hypothesized that Jesus is merely exaggerating in order to make his point (and, to be fair, very few people take Jesus literally when he says “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” [v. 29]), and so we can feel quite comfortable in toning it down a fair bit. Others, such as Martin Luther, proposed that the teachings of Jesus applied only to the spiritual realm, whereas things like relationships with employers and family members remain in the secular realm and there in these we are bound to compromise Jesus’ lofty ethic. Those among the dispensationalist school see Jesus’ Sermon as giving us a glimpse into the millennial age in which it will be possible to live accordingly, but for now we must make due. And then the Catholic Church employs what has been called (perhaps not too flatteringly) the Double Standard View, wherein exact obedience to the Sermon is only for the saintly ones and monks and nuns, while other beleivers can be satisfied to live out the spirit of Jesus is trying to say.*
One the other end, there are those who accept no compromise on any point (except maybe the gouge-your-own-eye-out part). Such people or groups included the early Anabaptists, Leo Tolstoy, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For these people, Jesus’ teaching is as plain as day, and, according to some Wesleyan groups, may actually be lived up to in large measure if God should give the believer the extra grace to refrain from all acts of willfully committed sin.
Then there are those who walk a middle road, such as Martin Dibelius and Dostoevsky, who indicate that Jesus does desire us to live up to his teaching, and has given it to us so that we may aspire to become more Christ-like, but due to our polluted human nature, we cannnot become completely obedient.
I speak form a Christian perspective beacause that is what I know, but I have seen hints of this in other faith systems, and the entirely evident human fascination with loopholes would leads me to believe that all people groups and faith systems have experienced the same thing. For example, I am currently watching a program from the BBC called Around the World in 80 Faiths, in which an Anglican vicar travels the world over the course of a year to see if he can get a pulse on how people from different places and cultures interact with the divine. In speaking with a Mormon family in one episode, they endorsed plural marriage by indicating that it is not a man’s nature to be monogamous, and so why force it upon him? I cannot help but think that this merely legitimizes a man’s desire for someone other than his one wife — at least to a certain degree, because sexual contact with someone other than one of your [insert number here] wives is still bad news.
As an idealist myself, and also simply a believer in the power of the divine in the world, I am deeply troubled by this. Isn’t the very point of religion to challenge us, through the power of the divine, to live a life that is different? Isn’t the idea of a faith system to make people act and become in their very natures different than they were and different from the typical conception of humanity? Should it not surprise us when people actually do what the Lord has commanded in the Sermon or elsewhere? The behaviour of the true devotee should be abnormal and difficult. But instead, in order to make something more palatable or reasonable, we disembowel it — the take the soul and guts out, making it lifeless, a mere caraciture of what it is supposed to be. We theoligize away our shortcomings and we lay a divine stamp of approval over our foibles; we engage in grand acts of self-delusion about our own goodness or status before the Lord because we cannot believe that God might desire such sacrifice from us. “It’s too hard!” we cry. Yes, it is! But that is our own human limitations speaking; dare I say the devil trying to keep us back from experiencing the joys of a life of obedience, dedication, and self-controle. But let us remember that nothing is impossible with God (Lk. 1:37); We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13). Let’s be willing and courageous to take Jesus’ words at face value and see what will result.
*The above paragraph contains references from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sermon_on_the_Mount.