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Monthly Archives: May 2014

Jesus Against Christianity

The biblical deity Yahweh has a deep history going back to the habiru, which is a generic term used in reference to a migratory population of nomadic tribes that swept down from the north into the Fertile Crescent roughly between 1800 and 1100 BCE. These northern invaders were resisted as outlaws by the settled cities and agricultural villages they flooded into, and at least in Egypt during the rule of Ramses IV some were taken into slavery.

Egypt

Yahweh was the patron deity of habiru (Hebrews) who inhabited mountains of the Sinai peninsula. His specialty was violence. In exchange for the obedience, sacrifice, and worship of his devotees, Yahweh provided protection and victory in their raids. Over time a number of neighboring habiru formed a federation that would eventually cross into Canaan and take possession of the land. On the way, many indigenous peoples and innocent citizens would be slaughtered or displaced, fulfilling a destiny promised to the invaders by their god.

Whether you are an invader or a native, your response in encountering “the other” tends to be very different. When religion grows out of the conditions of diversity, people work intentionally to build rapport, accommodate each other, and form cooperative relationships. In such regions, religion itself will be a rather pluralistic phenomenon, with perhaps many deities represented across a geographical region – an example being the ancient Indus Valley where “Hinduism” has flourished for millenniums.

But when religion comes in from outside a cultural context, bringing with it alien values and imperatives, the confrontation with difference is typically aggressive, invasive, and violent. Either “the other” will need to be converted – that is, bent into agreement with the invading orthodoxy – or subjugated (which can include oppression, exploitation, marginalization or extermination). Even though dialogue and cooperation may be possible, the prevailing impulse is either/or, in-or-out, good versus evil. The irony is that “good” in this case is identified with invasion, conversion, and violence in the name of god.

Most people are unfamiliar with this backstory to the religion of the Bible and its patron deity. As Judaism – taking its name from a southern tribe (Judah) of the federation that “settled” Canaan and held the first capital city (ancient Salem, renamed Jerusalem) – advanced its international presence, a mythology evolved to help establish this presence inside the arena of regional empires. The myth cycles of Creation, Covenant, and Conquest reconstructed history in a way that elevated Yahweh to supremacy and designated his people (the community telling these stories) as chosen and special.

                                                                                  

What interests me is the extent to which this invader mentality (with its imperative to move in and then displace or destroy the other) got encoded into the Bible and became a driving impulse of Western culture. Some important recent authors (Walter Wink, John Howard Yoder, William Herzog, and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer among them) have named this impulse “redemptive violence” – the use of violence as Yahweh’s preferred means of bringing about human salvation. The important extension of this code, of course, is that Yahweh’s preference motivates and justifies the violent behavior of his devotees.

fist

As Yahweh’s career progressed with the establishment of Christianity, this impulse continued to drive Western expansion – first in the evangelistic mission to the Gentiles, then under the administration of Constantine, and later into the missionary excursions and New World migration of the Americas. As it went on, this impulse also grew more violent, until with the English colonists and European settlers an entire native civilization was all but wiped out in the name of Manifest Destiny (our god-given right to possession).

It’s also important to understand that a patron deity (such as Yahweh) serves a dual role in the psychological development of his or her people. Firstly the deity is a projection of what concerns the security and ongoing survival of his tribe. In this way, our god validates and reinforces our present identity. God hates his enemies and therefore so must I – although the projection is really working the other way around: I hate my enemies and therefore so does my god.

The second role of the patron deity is to represent in ideal what is still only dormant (or latent) in his devotees. As a general trajectory across the world’s cultures, deities tend to develop in the direction of mercy, grace, compassion, and benevolence. That is to say, the ideal of a liberated and morally enlightened humanity is “forecasted” (projected into the future) in the narrative depiction of the deity. In the Bible, for instance, we can observe the gradual maturation and softening of Yahweh into a more loving and universally generous god.

As the literary character of Yahweh was evolving, he increasingly took on an “ambivalent” or schizoid nature. One moment he could reach out in tenderness, and in the next with merciless wrath. By the time of Jesus, this bipolar tendency had inspired various sects and divisions within Judaism. It seems that Yahweh could turn any which way he was needed. His benevolent side was perhaps his dominant function, but he also possessed a stern and violent shadow.

In some traditions this shadow was split off into a malevolent and diabolical counterpart (Satan), while in others it was reconciled as something of a reluctant obligation in god to condemn sinners. God had made the rules, humans disobeyed the rules, and Yahweh was constrained by his own morality to destroy those who failed or refused to repent.

What did Jesus have to say about it?

                                                                               

Because the First Voice of the historical Jesus is buried beneath and tangled into later Christian mythology, it’s not easy to tease out the “red letter” thread of his original gospel. But once you catch hold of it, the power of his message begins to resonate with certain sayings, stories and primitive recollections in the Gospels. The force of it can be summarized as “unconditional forgiveness,” or loving the enemy, and it runs in direct opposition to redemptive violence throughout.

open hand

As I have tried to expound on this radical message of Jesus in other posts (e.g., “Jesus, Forgiveness, and a Brave New World“), I’ll just make a few remarks on it here. Basically, Jesus advised that the only way into a human future of freedom, community, and lasting peace is to “let go” of (literally forgive) our neighbor’s guilt. The “good news” (gospel) according to Jesus is that God has already done this for us: nothing is holding us back but our own attachments to shame, fairness, proper reckoning, and moral satisfaction.

There is sufficient textual evidence to suggest that Jesus did more than merely accentuate Yahweh’s “good side” over his violent propensities – his right hand over his left, as it were. Instead he proclaimed, and lived out as if it were true, that God has only love for all people. The only way to love our enemies is to forgive, which is to let go of what you have against them by moral rights (their guilt) and return good for evil. This is why the qualifier “unconditional” is so critical to an accurate understanding of Jesus’ revolutionary teachings on the power of love.

As it happened, his revolution was short-lived. The code of redemptive violence was so deeply insinuated into the cultural DNA of the Bible that his followers soon reconstructed his death (and for the most part disregarded his life and teachings) into a transaction of vicarious suffering for the sake of our salvation. By dying on the cross, he was supposed to have paid the penalty for sin and satisfied Yahweh’s need for retribution. His torture and death, in other words, were necessary to the final solution.

Christianity, as it continued to develop and expand its empire, eventually became the embodiment of what Jesus had sought to transcend and leave behind.

The Judeo-Christian West has a long record of redemptive violence. I read recently that one out of five adult Americans today are either incarcerated, awaiting trial, or on probation. The most charitable nation on earth also has the largest percentage of its population in prisons. The religion that has the most to say about love and how “God is love” is also the most outspoken about retribution and people getting what they deserve.

If the revolution intended by Jesus has any hope of taking hold on a large scale, more people will need to see the irreconcilable contradiction between Christianity’s current message of salvation and his original gospel. It’s not enough to simply lay fresh tile on a faulty foundation. We need the courage to call redemptive violence when we see it in ourselves and in each other, but we need even more courage to extinguish this impulse and make a way for love instead.

 

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As If

  1. God has a plan and is in control.
  2. Everything happens for a reason.
  3. You have an immortal soul, but …
  4. Don’t trust yourself.
  5. A better place awaits those who obey God.

I do not mourn because his soul is very much alive. God has a plan for each person. Mine was to hide in this boat and shed some light on our actions.

This is what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote while hiding from authorities in a boat, after he and his brother had successfully carried out their mission of bombing the Boston marathon. Dzhokhar’s brother Tamerlan died on his way to the hospital from gunshot wounds by pursuing police and from being dragged under their own get-away car.

We Muslims are one body: you hurt one you hurt us all. Know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven. Now how can you compete with that?

Now we might spin this into an exposé of Islamic fundamentalism. But if we did, it would only be to put a buffer of dissociation between an ideology that motivated these young men to violence in God’s name, and the more respectable theism of American Christianity. Of course, in the process of pushing this ideology away and condemning it as against what God is really all about, we protect ourselves against the possibility of a revelation – also known as disillusionment.

It can be expanded and morphed into countless variations – as it is among the world’s many religions – but this ideology consists of just five beliefs. A belief is when we pretend to know something, but don’t realize that we are pretending. In our trances of conviction and in the name of our delusions, human beings commit atrocities against other people, life on earth, and future generations. It doesn’t really matter what name you attach to the delusion; the essential mechanics of the phenomenon are the same across the board.

As we look at the five statements that make up this dangerous ideology, it should be obvious that they can be turned in the interest of emotional comfort or unconscionable violence. What decides the difference? If these were diametrical opposites the answer would be easy. The purpose is to calm anxiety, promote peace, and connect us meaningfully to the world around us. But could it have another purpose as well?

An unresolvable fact of our life in time is that things come at us randomly. Kind people suffer and mean people flourish; and yes, mean people suffer as kind people flourish. Televangelists can pump the notion that God favors those who are obedient, generous, and forgiving (although that last one doesn’t get as much airtime), but actual experience and just a little honest reflection will easily pry the lid off that deception. Still, it’s comforting to know (or pretend to know) that someone is watching over us and will someday give us what we deserve.

When, exactly? There’s no telling, but you can rest assured that if it doesn’t come in this life, God will bless you richly in the next. For a lot of people, just knowing (or pretending to know) that we don’t really die but merely continue on after the eye-blink of death in everlasting perpetuity is sufficient to reconcile them to the hardship, trauma, and bereavement that are inevitable in this life. That makes this bearable. We can put up with a lot here, with the assurance that it will all be better there.

For the Tsarnaev brothers, the promise of an after-life reward provided more than enough motivation to rip off limbs and kill innocent bystanders. Even the prospect of dying for their cause wasn’t a deterrent – if anything, it was a stimulant to what they did. God’s plan involves the triumph of his religion, which will come about either by the conversion or destruction of unbelievers. God is in control and is moving human events in the direction of a preordained destiny. Whatever happens along the way, you can know (or pretend to know) that it’s all happening according to plan.

Every statement in the above set has a metaphysical anchor, except one. The existence of an external deity who has a plan and is in control, whose reasons may be inscrutable (and therefore beyond question), and who will reward our obedience and sacrifice with endless beatitude in the next life – the hook for each one of these beliefs is importantly just (or far) outside the horizon of direct experience or presentable evidence. This is frequently used as an argument for their authority, strangely enough.

Religion is about metaphysics, and metaphysics can only be known by revelation. Charismatic prophets, inerrant scriptures, and orthodox doctrines all give warrant to the validity of our faith. Don’t worry over the fact that you haven’t encountered the personal deity as he is depicted in the sacred stories. It happened, and that’s all you need to know (or pretend to know). Besides, who are you to question it? Your sinful nature, mortal ignorance, personal stupidity, or undeveloped faith (multiple choice, and “all of the above” is the best answer) preclude you from any kind of claim to authority.

So we can see that none of the other statements of this dangerous ideology would stand up or hold water if confidence in our own experience, intelligence, and insight were not disqualified beforehand. If you can be dissuaded from trusting yourself – or better yet, if distrusting yourself can be accepted as obedience to divine revelation – then you are absolutely dependent on the external authority of religion.

But as Alan Watts often asked: If you can’t trust yourself, is it really a good idea to trust this distrust of yourself? This is typically where orthodoxy warns us to stop asking questions.

When we believe something, we pretend to know – and then forget or never wake up to realize that we are acting “as if” we know. But isn’t this what we mean by faith? Don’t we need faith to believe in an external deity, his overarching plan, our own immortal souls, and a life after this one? The answer is “No.” All you need is the willingness to believe these things, but that isn’t faith.

PeaceIt is possible to question, doubt, and disbelieve almost every statement in the ideology under consideration and still have faith – a mystically deep, spiritually grounded, and truly relevant faith. Almost every one. But when you lose or give up trust in yourself, you really can’t trust anything else.

Faith is full release to the present mystery of reality, experienced as provident in this beat of your heart, this breath in your lungs, this thought in your mind, this moment of being, this passing opportunity of life. All of this rises up from within and all around you as support, grace, and real presence.

Until we are given permission to trust ourselves, or take it back from those who are withholding it from us, more and more people will suffer the consequences of our convictions. We will continue to take our gods as real, read our myths as literal accounts, claim the infallibility of our beliefs, and be ready to surrender everything – common sense, reason, peace, and life itself – for the sake of what we only pretend to know.

 

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God and Ground

There is a very interesting paradox at the heart of healthy religion. Our notions of God – just looking across the landscape of world religions, and then deeper into the private religion of individuals – are practically innumerable and infinitely diverse. God is represented as a personality, a force of some kind, a supreme intelligence, or as an utterly abstract perfection.

But this isn’t the paradox I have in mind.

A paradox is something that is “contrary to” (para) “opinion” (doxa) or beyond belief, in apparent conflict with how something is commonly understood. The paradox at the heart of healthy religion has nothing to do with the countless and often contradictory ways that human beings represent God. To think of God as masculine and feminine, for instance, is not a paradox but simply a more inclusive and holistic consideration of the divine personality.

The real paradox in religion has to do with the representation of something that is inherently unimaginable, with all our talk (theology) about a mystery that is essentially ineffable (beyond words). What I’m calling healthy religion acknowledges this paradox and respects it for the corrective effect it has on our tendency to get locked too tightly around what we think God is. Unhealthy religion, on the other hand, fails to acknowledge it and even seeks to invalidate the paradox by insisting that its doctrines are final and infallible.

God and GroundLet’s look inside this paradox in order to understand and appreciate its creative tension. The illustration above depicts this “contained contradiction” at the heart of healthy religion. At the bottom is an icon representing the idea of what is essentially beyond representation – what I have taken to calling the real presence of mystery. This isn’t merely stating that reality is a mystery to our minds, but that this mystery rises up and presents itself to us in the manifold nature of things; as this, that, and the other.

The icon suggests a swirling and dynamic creativity, spinning out the complex arrangement of existence all around us, as it simultaneously turns inward to a place of singular and undifferentiated oneness. This is the generative source of being; not just another being but the power of being itself. If these terms seem inadequate, we shouldn’t be surprised. We are contemplating something that is not a thing; it cannot be made into an object of thought or boxed up inside any definition.

Because this present mystery is the generative and foundational support of everything else, a favored metaphor among mystics is the “ground of being.” Everything we can sense and know moves through cycles of birth and death, emergence and dissolution, coming-to-be and passing away. Like waves on the surface of an ocean, the multiplicity of apparently separate beings, each rolling through the period of its individual lifetime, is really the dynamic action of a fathomless sea presenting itself as this, that, and the other.

The “wave” under consideration here is you. If you could take the opportunity and look deep, very deep within yourself, you would find not just more “me” but something else. Not something separate and apart from what you are, but not some indestructible center of identity either. It is presence – real presence, the presentation of a mystery rising up in this provident moment in you, as you, but also in everything else around you. As you are able to let go and fall into the gracious support of this mystery, all concern for “me and mine” dissolves away, and only a profound awareness of communion remains.

As I said, healthy religion encourages individuals to descend by this inward path into the presence of God and communion with all things. The “of God” represents religion’s final words before the soul plunges into the depths where language is no longer effective; but neither is it necessary. The word mystery comes from the root “to close,” which is gentle reproof of our tendency to open our mouths with incessant commentary on something that can’t even really be named. Our instinct for meaning takes time and practice to restrain in the presence of mystery.

But religion doesn’t just leave you there. There are also unhealthy forms of mysticism, which simply revel in communion with the present mystery but lack any interest in exploring its connections to everyday life in the world. In my experience, these unhealthy forms of mysticism characteristically denigrate the ego and renounce the realm of daily concerns. They try to press the wave flat, so that only the infinite ocean remains.

While the ocean is more than the waves at its surface, the waves are nothing less than the ocean itself. Your identity – the separate “who” that you are – is distinct from your essence which unwinds into the depths of being itself. Identity (ego) is a product of social conditioning, the place in your personality where consciousness has been bent back into self-consciousness by the disciplines of your tribe. For this reason it is commonly called the “conditioned self.” Ego is the ‘I’ who is “one of us,” an insider, both product and agent of the collective.

“Patron deity” in religion refers to the representation of God as a personality who stands in a reciprocal relationship with devotees, providing something in exchange for their worship, offerings, prayers and obedience. It is more than just an “idea” of God, then, and goes beyond mere belief. Reciprocity is the key. Devotees are aware that their patron deity calls them to something, puts a demand on them, or promises a reward for their fidelity, commitment, and sacrifice.

It’s important to understand that the patron deity is a literary figure, not a literal one; a figure of story, art and imagination rather than an actual separate being (out there, up there). Especially in a religion where sacred stories have been reduced to factual records, such a statement will be regarded as heresy, disbelief, ignorance or a loss of faith. There will also tend to be a corresponding lack of spiritual depth, and not much appreciation of mystery.

In healthy religion, the tribe orients and guides ego through the course of development, from the impulsive stage of childhood, through an imperial phase of adolescence, and eventually into the responsibilities of adulthood. The transition between childhood and adulthood – not a formal stage but rather a phase in development known as “growing up” (adolēscere) – is where ego frequently gets stuck. During this time an individual can come to fervently believe that “it’s all about me.”

The imperial ego is predictably self-absorbed, strives for superiority, seeks glory, and is jealous for the exclusive love and worship of others. Interestingly, every religion has to evolve through its own adolescent phase, where the patron deity is depicted and praised in exactly these terms. The earlier depictions of a more maternal and provident nature are rather dramatically rejected (or demoted to secondary attributes) in the exaltation of a supreme lord and king. If the evolution of religion can successfully transcend this self-centered phase, believers will eventually be empowered to take up a more stable, responsible, creative and benevolent attitude in life.

What I’m calling the patron deity, then, is complicated by the fact that it stands in a paradoxical relationship to the grounding mystery of reality, but at the same time represents progress (or arrest) in the spiritual awakening of its devotees. Just a quick survey of the Bible, for instance, reveals a “growth chart” in how its patron deity (Yahweh) gradually advanced from a jealous demand on the obedience of insiders, into a compassionate interest in outsiders and those who suffer, and opened fully at last into an unconditional love for the enemy (articulated as forgiveness in the teachings of Jesus).

Along the way, Yahweh’s devotional community (as a function of its individual egos) advanced accordingly – or I should say, along a slightly slower curve behind the guiding light of his ideal. At times it has gotten hung up. Concerns over natural resources, national security, who’s in charge, and the uncertainty of the future have occasionally provoked individual egos (and consequently entire tribes) to twist up inside themselves and grip down in fear. At this historic moment, in fact, we are in the midst of a regressive hiccup through our adolescent phase, as fundamentalists of various brands hunker behind ramparts and prepare for war.

If we can appreciate – which of course means that we must first acknowledge and accept – that our patron deities are representations-in-transcendence of what is going on (or turning off) in ourselves, then there is a chance that we will be able to not only survive the current regression into conviction and violence, but finally wake up to the real presence of mystery in ourselves, in each other, right here and now.

 

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