John Macmurray, Christianity, What we mean and What We Don’t Mean

From Karl Polanyi
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[1] It would clear the religious atmosphere considerably if people would say what in traditional Christianity they do not believe. Is there anything that we do not believe that people say is essential to Christianity?

Christianity is primarily centred in the life and teaching of Jesus. But two possible conception of a religion may arise from this. Christianity may be a religion about Jesus in which he appears as a kind of lay figure. Such a religion embodies a set of doctrines. But if we read the gospels to try to understand what they say and about God and Jesus which are usually associated with Christianity - indeed a good deal of subtlety is needed to make these agree with what is to be found in the New Testament. If we try to understand what constituted the religious outlook and thought of the early Christian Church we find that they had no theology.

Jesus took it for granted that the people believed in God, and what he was interested in were the implications of this in human life. His discovery was that the way you live in relation to one another is the only real expression of your relation to God.

The degree of difference between orthodox theology and what is to be found in the New Testament is such as to make a canon of authenticity for the N.T. unnecessary. Much of orthodox theology comes from Greek philosophy - it is speculative, dogmatic, dualist. In contrast, the teaching of Jesus is in temper empirical and behind it is the Jewish conception of religion.

The Jewish religion is something quite unique. Its outstanding feature is that it is through and through historical. For the Jew the material of religion is the actual history of the Jewish people. If you think of the Jewish religion, you think of history, and if you think of Jewish history, you think of God. The Jewish prophets always think religion in terms of history.

[2] Since Jesus was a Jew his first task was to recall his own people to the reality of their own religions.

Religion is for Jesus and for the Jew a way of understanding the world. The Jews are religious just because they haven't a religion. If you re religious then religion isn't something you have, religion is the way you understand the world. If you have a religion then you live your life in terms of some philosophical outlook or other - and turn away from living when you turn to God.

Marxist conception of religion

Marx was a Jew, and therefore came near to a religious understanding, but his theory of religion arose from the system that he knew. For him the defining characteristic of a religion is a belief in another world and in immortality. But if this theory of religion is right then the Jews of the Old Testament were not religious at all, yet looking at history we see that the Jews were the only fundamentally religious people in historic times. (This does not mean that a belief in immortality is false, only that it is not a defining characteristic of religion. A belief in immortality is a Greek idea which crept in to the Jewish religion and was completely rejected by he Saduccoss, although others were not prepared to reject the idea merely because it was a new one.

In criticising secular thought, religious people invariably instance naturalism and empiricism, which is actually the Christian thing breaking through the dogmatic Greek tradition. The teaching of Jesus scarcely ever makes a statement of general principle - instead a particular case in instanced to express an attitude of mind which will enable one to deal with any number of particular situations. Jesus was very much aware of the temporal process. He knew that if you state general laws of behaviour they very soon become out of date. The capacity which Christianity has shown for persisting from one form society to another is due just to this absence of general principles. See St. Paul's answer to the Corinthians: “All things are lawful, but all things are not expedient”. What is expressed here is a religious attitude, not an ethical one.

Although the Jewish religion started with a code of laws, these were continually being adapted to meet a changing situation. Throughout the O.T. there is evidence of the tension between the effort to keep the letter of the old law and the effort to bring it up to date. And throughout European history we can see that what expresses itself as an attack on the Jews is really an attack on the Jewish attitude to life as an element in the European tradition, and therefore on Christianity. This has been made clearer by Hitler than ever before.

The Jewish is the only real understanding of religion because it is about the life of the community. The Jews thought of [3] themselves as the children of Israel - the idea of the family developing to that of society - and they thought of society in terms of personal relationships. The Jewish idea of the individual is completely different from the modern European; the individual was never contrasted with society but was thought of as member of the community which as a whole would have to suffer for his sins and benefit from his virtues.

The Jews were chosen by God as the means by which he revealed himself. This statement lent itself to two interpretations - first, that God chose the Jews because he liked them better than anyone else; second, that God would use the Jews even to the extent of their own destruction for his purpose of redeeming the world. This latter is the issue on which Jesus stood - he consistently attacked the former - imperialist - view, and his first mission was a call to the Jews to return to the way of God's purpose. Here Jesus takes his place in the continuity of the prophetic tradition. He insists on the redemption of the Jew as the first task. But when he reached the convitction that this effort would fail, that the Jews would refuse the task, he realised that the question of nationality was not essential, and that for God would choose others to fulfil his purpose. (For suggesting this he was nearly lynched in his own synagogue.)

The discovery that Jesus made, which was not an ideal but a truth, was that human life is personal. To understand this it is necessary to point the constrasts that Jesus pointed - that human life is non-natural; non-organic; communal, not social; and that relationships between humans are not based on ties of blood or nationality - in fact, it would be impossible to build a human community on the basis of blood relationship. Any such society must inevitability break down. It was this discovery that enabled Jesus to be so certain of the ultimate success of his mission. The rejection of it, which he foresaw, would involve inevitable failure. Thus Jesus was able to say to his disciples “You can't possibly fail”. In rejecting the truth men would be attempting to live in a way which contradicted their own nature, and so frustrating themselves.

Human community

The positive side of the teaching of Jesus is the explanation of what human community is. The defining attitude is expressed in the new conception of love - at the root of the love relationship lie the structural ideas of equality and freedom. These are ideals that may or may not be achieved, but are essential to any relationship which is a human relationship - they are statements of the actual structure of any personal relationship. They are religious, not political, ideas. The equality that is the substance of community is a personal equality, not a quantitative thing measured by material possessions, but an equality of opportunity to establish free human relationships. This, of course, involves material arrangements, which are the stuff of opportunity. This [4] explains why things that were at one time tolerable later become intolerable. So long as personal inequality is not folt, in the religious sense it does not exist. But consciousness of inequality appears as soon as the possibility of a change which will increase equality and freedom is recognised becomes a religious situation. In the same way pacifism today is the expression of the fact that war is no longer inevitable. A future war will for the first time have been deliberately chosen, in spite of the consciousness that it was avoidable.

Even where the facts have not changed, a change in the consciousness of the facts has the result of transforming the situation. The Marxist argues that a change in the facts produces a change of consciousness; but this is only partly true. The full truth is that the awareness of the facts is itself one of the facts, and one of the changes in the situation may be a change in our consciousness of the situation.


This is the one technical term that Jesus used. We think of faith as belief in something or someone - faith in God, faith in a doctrine. But faith was used by Jesus in contrast to fear - to describe an attitude of trust - a state of mind - not a system of beliefs.

The teachings of Jesus has been a determining force in the world, not because he led an exemplary life, but because he discovered the truth about human nature. The other ideas that are associated with him - that his birth was miraculous, that he was raised from the dead - are of no importance compared with this. The stress that is laid by the apostles on the resurrection is accounted for by the fact that they found it impossible to understand their own feeling that Jesus' teaching was of world importance, and the resurrection was a triumphant vindication of this feeling. “This man rose from the dead, now will you listen”. That many people today find it impossible to believe in the resurrection of Jesus may not make it untrue. But its truth or lack of truth makes no difference to the importance of Jesus in world history.

Christianity and the Churches

If we look at the set of organised religions that is called Christianity we see nothing that can be called the Church - only a series of churches, each one of which has arisen in dialectic [5] opposition to the one fro which he grew. Historically, therefore, each stands for the denial that the other churches are Christian. This idea has lately worn very thin - it is dwindling together with the religious reality of the churches.

The embodiment of the historical process that Jesus initiated cannot be found in the history of the churches, especially since the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. The churches have, in fact, been the religions of Europe. The unchristian societies of which Europe has been composed have each had their religion, which they have labelled Christian, but which have existed to express and maintain the communities of nation or class to which they belong. The churches functioned in precisely this way during the war. These religions have acted as a conservative force maintaining definite forms of society with their corresponding moralities and consciousness. The real Christian movement in history is concerned with the establishment of a society in the world which is the denial of all of these. In consequence, at every time of crisis we find the churches largely on the antichristian side.

At the same time the churches are part of the total effect of the impact of Christianity on the world. They perform the function that religion in a limited society must perform. Thus a given church firstly expresses the extent of the development of Christianity in that society, and secondly the opposition to the Christian dynamic which threatens to destroy the society in its limited form - it expresses the limitation that a particular society imposes on Christianity. Society as a whole is in process of becoming more Christian, and the churches are tending to oppose this movement. For since they exist as the religions of a temporary from of society they must cease to exist in their present form with the passing of the present form of society. If they cling to their existing forms by attempting to defend and conserve their traditional dogmas and institutions they identify themselves with the form of society that Christianity is in process of destroying.

Text Informations

Original Publication: part of “Notes from Christian left Training week-ends”, 1937
KPA: 21/22, 1-5