Political Theology Today A forum for interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue

Jesus the Epicurean: or Why the Personal really is Political (Benjamin Wood)

eating-with-sinners

In his richly devotional book Writing in the Sand, the psychotherapist and former monk, Thomas Moore makes an intriguing hermeneutical suggestion. When we explore the ministry of Jesus and its contemporary implications, one fruitful exercise is to view his actions through the lens of the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism. At first glance, such a suggestion seems antithetical to any faithful rendering of the New Testament. After all, the Epicureans were the great materialists of antiquity. With their elegant exposition of Democritean atomism and their indifference to religion, early Christians cast Epicureans as the enemies of their energetic faith in the risen Christ. Yet, such condemnations often obscure the extent to which both early Christians and Epicureans shared a common set of social practices. Such resemblances make for a fruitful cross-reading. Returning to the Gospels, Moore notes: ‘Jesus has much in common with Epicurus….The Gospels are full of scenes where he is eating, cooking, serving food, arranging dinner, caring for his students and enjoying the company of those at the table.’[1] Just as Epicurus found satisfaction in ‘human pleasure ‘[2]and friendship, Moore suggests that ‘[to] be a student of Jesus is to pursue the pleasures that foster human warmth and community.’[3] The historical truth of this subjective observation can be gleaned from surviving texts.

Take the intimate fellowship both groups enjoyed. In cultures where food is expensive or scarce, the table becomes a political space. Who sits at the table and eats a meal expresses the kind of community to which one belongs. Expense or scarcity prompts difficult choices regarding time and labour, so the inclusion of one person over another was an expression of guiding social and economic priorities. This was true of first-century Judaism and it was also true of Epicurus and the Athens of the 3rd century BCE.  In the Jewish case, eating was infused with markers of belonging centred on ritual purity. For Athens, access to food and fellowship delineated forms of social status. The symposia (made famous by Plato’s dialogue) were just such occasions, which confirmed one’s membership of an aristocratic male culture. Yet, in both settings there were patterns of deep-seated inclusivity, which surfaced periodically in socially restrictive settings. The Torah mandated love of the foreigner, but it was the later the prophetic movement which affirmed that foreigners were permitted to keep the feasts of God. Likewise, Athenian religion possessed an inclusive streak, revolving around the consumption of sacrificial meat. At the civic festival known as the Panathenaia, all male citizens were permitted equal portions of the offering, regardless of social rank.[4]  This meant that a person of low standing could receive a piece of tender loin while the highest aristocrat could receive gristle. Thus, at the sacrificial meal, chance introduced the latent possibility (patriarchal) equality, even if this did not extend to the rest of life.

Given these precedents, we can see Jesus and Epicurus as creative users of their traditions, augmenting them in ways which extended hospitality in unexpected and sometimes radical ways. Their shared conception of table-fellowship gestured towards communities which embraced rich, poor, slave, free, insider and outsider. Both subcultures also included women among their number; a significant fact in the patrimonial cultures of Palestine and Athens.[5] In both communities this emphasis upon personal amity produced remarkably similar results. In the first place, both groups possessed an egalitarian (although not necessarily non-hierarchical) ethos. This expectation of fellowship prompted members of these two communities to offer their resources for common use.[6] Secondly, inclusion in these alternative cultures might mean giving up family attachments. Just as disciples of Jesus were encouraged to make a break with their domestic ties and daily occupations (Matt. 12:46-50: Lk. 14:26), it was expected that Epicurean disciples would leave their worldly responsibilities.[7] Read in this context, table-fellowship served as an opportunity to form and supplement a new community-identity- one based upon love and learning.

What might our political theology be like if we take such a politics of intimacy as our starting-point? It seems to me that reading Christianity through an Epicurean lens aids us in resisting an obsession with ‘technique’ which is so pervasive in contemporary society. Our technological culture is so focused on structures, fixes and mechanisms that little consideration is given to matters of moral value. It is easy for political theologians to be caught up with collective solutions to social problems to the detriment of one’s personal motives and real-life relationships. In a yearning for justice, it might be tempting to think that the patterns of table-fellowship are quaint or sentimental additions to the radicalism of the Gospel. Wrong. Both Jesus and Epicurus show us that table-fellowship is not an addition or over-lay to the formation of community, but the substance of any polis worth living in (including the Church). The virtues of the table- intimacy, appreciation and joy- are the outward signs of an alternative politics being enacted. Such an experience is more transformative than the politics of technique, since it alters those who participate; forming them into different people. In this mould, politics is not about grand gestures, but rather concerned with moral learning; often undertaken, slowly, quietly, yet bravely.

If intimacy has the capacity to dispel a fixation with structures, it also impresses upon us the destructiveness of another aspect of the modern technological condition: anonymity. Our sprawling urban lives are carried on at such a scale of organisation that it is easy for individuals to become lost in the crowd. Metropolitan Christian communities seem to be at the sharp end of this. With a geographically scattered congregation, perhaps made up of a mix of students, mobile professors or over-worked parents, Churches are liable to become little more than spiritual motels or lay-bys. The frenzy of work, production and consumption reduces the possibility of forming a nucleus of friends, capable of upholding one another in love. In this context, the Eucharist is likely to be stripped of its communal character, the sharing of the sacrament becoming the equivalent of receiving food from a religious vending machine. The sacrament is distributed, but there is no meeting of the participants. They remain in a profound way separate from one another. Given these institutional conditions, theo-political reflection has an incentive to leave unexamined the small, the personal and intimate details of our lives (things which are increasingly fragmented in our society) and reflect upon the seeming solidity of large-scale political and social endeavours; speaking of society, the economy and class, even Christianity, yet scarcely considering the personal dimensions which form and inform these fields of human action and faith.

Even liberationist theologians (whose reflections most often spring from real-life encounter and struggle) can end up subordinating these personal stories to an impersonal narrative of class or economics. Thus, the Gospel, like the rest of society, tends to be caught in the trap of obscurity and generality; stripped of the intimacy so many crave. What is the solution? Seeing Jesus through Epicurean eyes suggests to us that the Church desperately needs to return to the kind of home-spun patterns of inclusion exemplified by the early Christians and the ancient Epicureans, if its politics is going to be transmitted and sustained in the midst of the crowd. Perhaps, the most radical thing the Church can do is to re-discover the integrity of the agape-meal as a ‘meal’, and not just an archaic ritual. In summarising the effect of an Epicurean vision of Jesus on our lives, Moore puts it this way: ‘That Jesus was an Epicurean contrasts with the tendency of some of his later followers to be only ascetic or puritan, denying the value of pleasure and desire. Indeed, the above description of walking in the shoes of this Jesus could transform the way people understand every word of the Gospel.’[8]  For political theologians such a transformation could be particularly acute. By following the Gospel’s invitation of friendship and pleasure, means to root ourselves in a new understanding public life; one in which the personal really is political. In directing its energy towards providing spaces for meeting, friendship, sharing, the Church has the capacity to challenge both the forces of mechanism and anonymity. Of course our society doesn’t recognize such spaces as political (as many Greeks did not) because the notion of the political is too narrowly defined.  Yet if Christians want to be political as Jesus was political, they need to dispense with such narrowness and turn towards a more generous definition; one which includes the little dignities and hospitalities of life.

Dr Benjamin J. Wood is a Research Associate at the Lincoln Theological Institute, University of Manchester.  His current research interests include the theological validity of political liberalism, the Christian foundations of secularity and Augustinian theology in relation to individualism.

[1]Thomas Moore,Writing in the Sand: Jesus and the Soul of the Gospels, ( New York: Hay House, 2009), p. 36  

[2]Moore,Writing in the Sand: Jesus and the Soul of the Gospels, ( New York: Hay House, 2009), p. 36  

[3]Moore,Writing in the Sand, p. 37

[4]  Walter Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, trans. Peter Bing, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 155

[5]Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 118

[6]Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 118

[7]Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire, p. 118.

[8]Moore,Writing in the Sand, p. 43

(2) Comments

  1. Love it. Thank you for reminding me of the community forming nature of the Eucharist and its counter cultural streak. And who doesn’t need to remember the realness of Jesus! Real friends-real meals.

  2. Wow! I loved this article. I can’t remember where I read it (part of the reason I found this post), but, the character of Jesus closely resembles that of Jesus as noted in this post. Further, I also read that the Epicurean garden communes became the earliest monasteries. Epicurus was distorted. His idea of pleasure was simple and humble. He was a friend who welcomed all and loved his friends and had few desires. A block of cheese and water. He was a man of love. Anyway… thanks for the post.

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