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Would Jesus Join a Church?

Christianity has become a protected membership, where insiders are separated from outsiders by a wall of orthodox beliefs and moral judgments. In this post I will argue that membership is always about purity, separation, and exclusion.

Purity may not be about ritual or dietary restrictions in most cases; at least this is generally true of Christian memberships. But insiders consistently regard themselves as more pure (what used to be called righteous) and in possession of the revealed (uncontaminated) truth upon which their salvation (and everyone else’s) depends.

In order to achieve and preserve purity, insiders see the need to separate themselves from the rest of the world, especially from “sinners and unbelievers.” These are necessarily excluded – perhaps welcomed as visitors, but soon enough urged to confess their sins, adopt the orthodoxy, join the church, and recite the creed.

For the most part, Christian insiders have the assurance of being saved from damnation (the fate of the rest of the world) by their belief in Jesus as one who took away their sins, bore their deserved punishment on his cross by dying in their place, and thereby satisfied the conditions against their forgiveness.

Christianity as a protected membership goes back to the early centuries when the mixture of world cultures under Roman rule was making imperial unification all but impossible. At first, Roman emperors tried to subjugate or exterminate their motley population of immigrants, which included a messianic movement that took its inspiration from a crucified rebel leader who had wandered the countryside with a message of human liberation by the spirit of God.

Jesus’ followers carried on with his refusal to obey traditions, institutions, and authorities that oppressed and exploited the human spirit. State persecution of this Jesus movement only managed to push it underground, however, where its antiestablishmentarian philosophy continued to spread.

With Constantine (272-337 CE) came a different tactic. Rather than trying to uproot and destroy the Christians, he enticed them into becoming a protected membership. His council at Nicaea in 325 was convened for the purpose of motivating church leaders to define their religion, agree on what Christians should believe, and enforce this orthodoxy across his empire.

By converting the Jesus movement into a religious institution, Constantine was able to bring it under control and on his side. Ever since then, Christianity has preferred to sidle up to thrones, parliaments, and political parties.

Back in the middle of the first century, before Constantine’s solution and just as Roman persecution of Christians was getting started, the apostle Paul had been busy planting Christian communities throughout Greece and Asia Minor. Even that early, the movement was trying to find a balance between the itinerant values of Jesus and the more settled life in towns and cities. Paul himself seems to have struggled somewhat with the tension of perfect freedom and proper order in the communities he helped to establish, presaging a dynamic that Constantine would later turn in his favor.

In the Christianity of Paul and Paul’s line (particularly the authors of Colossians and Ephesians) a provocative trinitarian confession was circulating. Paul himself testified to having undergone a religious conversion of sorts, when, on his way to arrest some Christians in Damascus, he was suddenly seized by a vision of blinding light and a voice claiming to be that of “Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5).

Later Paul would describe the experience as the moment he died to what he had been, to become a bearer of the living spirit of Jesus. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Paul extended this transforming experience of “Christ in me” into a new concept of the Jesus community as the “body of Christ.” Christ wasn’t the last name of Jesus but a Hebrew term (mashiach) meaning “anointed one,” similar in many ways to the Eastern idea of buddha or “awakened one.” We can think of this as a spiritual principle that impels the transcendence of ego into unity consciousness and the liberated life. Jesus the Christ and Gautama the Buddha are honored as individuals in whom a new, higher humanity was revealed and released in the world.

In Paul’s understanding, Jesus became the Christ in being filled and lifted up (resurrected) by the spirit of God (see Romans 1:4). This same spirit is what came to life in Paul himself, as well as in everyone who undergoes the death-and-resurrection (ego transcending) experience. All together, they now live in the world as the corporate body of Christ, sharing its joy and bringing liberation to those still held captive by fear – just as Jesus the Christ had done.

Disciples of Paul completed the trinitarian confession by taking his “Christ in me” and “body of Christ” metaphors and adding a cosmic dimension:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)

Rather than taking this as a confirmation of the (much later) orthodox doctrines of Jesus’ divinity and the divine Trinity, we need to appreciate the vision in its full scope. Christ (the transforming principle of higher wholeness) is not only at work in the individual Christian and present in the Christian community, but fills the entire frame of the cosmos itself.

That is to say, nothing is excluded.

If we look for the roots of this universalist vision, we will find them in the life and teachings of Jesus himself. Without the filter of subsequent tradition, theological commentary, and church dogma, Jesus’ life and message can be understood as centered in one thing, to which he gave the metaphorical name kingdom – reign, or even better, reality – of God. For him this reality has no inside or outside, but is a mystery that includes everyone.

For that reason we can summarize the life and teachings of Jesus as focused on radical inclusion.

This helps explain why Jesus was so critical of human traditions, human institutions, and orthodoxies that enshrine human convictions about mysteries we really don’t understand or haven’t experienced. His message of unconditional forgiveness – letting go of vengeance, surrendering the need to get even, and responding to the enemy with lovingkindness – removes the walls separating insiders from outsiders, the righteous from the rest.

What does the vision of radical inclusion have to say to protected memberships, like what Christianity has largely become today? A good question to ask ourselves is, “Would Jesus join a church?”

 

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Ignoring Jesus by Making Him God

In orthodox Christianity Jesus is regarded as the Divine Son and Second Person of the Trinity; nothing less than God. Theologians – referring to those who presume to speak authoritatively about God (logos, the study of or talk about theos, god) – have ensconced him fully inside their doctrinal systems.

Over the centuries believers have witnessed to direct encounters with Jesus himself, but theologians are typically cautious when it comes to validating their authenticity. How can you recognize someone you’ve never met?

This point should not be dismissed too quickly. None of us today has a personal memory of meeting the historical Jesus, so the recognition must be based on popular depictions (like the gorgeous wavy-haired European Jesus in a Warner Sallman painting) or a conception more symptomatic of our individual and cultural biases. Maybe you saw the scars in his hands and feet. But then again, thousands in history besides Jesus have been crucified, so how can you know for sure?

The Jesus of orthodox theology is not the same Jesus who came from Nazareth, who lived and died in the first century. Archaeologists and historians are more helpful when it comes to clarifying our picture of what that Jesus may have been like.

But what about the New Testament Gospels? An internal comparison of the narratives themselves shows them to be more myth than history. I don’t mean this as an excuse to ignore what they have to say or relegate them to nothing more than Palestinian fairy tales.

These Gospel narratives were composed after the death of Jesus but before the dogma-machine of Christian orthodoxy got underway. They are not exercises in theology as much as productions in mythology, stories told as meditations on Jesus as a symbol of God. Not Jesus as God as later theologians would insist, but on Jesus as a threshold figure linking the realm of everyday life to the present mystery of reality, beyond names and forms.

Not one of the New Testament authors had known Jesus personally.

The traditional appellations of “Matthew” (a disciple of Jesus) “Mark” (an assistant of the apostle Paul) “Luke” (a disciple and biographer of Paul) and “John” (another disciple of Jesus) were added later. Their contribution was to collect and invent stories that featured Jesus as one who mediated for others an experience of spirit, but who could now only be remembered, not encountered. Even Paul, writing perhaps 15 to 20 years prior to the earliest Gospel (Mark c. 70 CE), had never met the historical Jesus.

Since they lived in closer proximity in time and place to where Jesus had been alive, the New Testament storytellers could depict him with greater realism than can a twenty-first century North American believer. Consequently those stories have seemed more like historical accounts to us than sacred fiction. Add to that our modern prejudice against fiction generally, which regards it as more fantasy than truth, and it’s no wonder that so many Christians (and others) read the Gospels as history.

This gives me an opportunity to reach back to a couple recent posts in this blog of mine, published under the general title “Idols of Orthodoxy.” There I offered a way of interpreting symbols – not mathematical or roadside symbols, but specifically symbolic objects like national flags, wedding rings, religious icons, and the human figure of Jesus.

A symbol in this sense will always have a tangible (i.e., sensory-physical) aspect – colored patterns on cloth; a band of precious metal; a portrait in stone, wood, or paint; or the body and behavior of a living person.

Who the historical Jesus was, what he said and did, and the effect he had on his contemporaries – some of whom felt arrested and transformed in his presence, others who conspired in his arrest and execution for rousing the rabble – are what the Gospel writers attempted to render in their mythological depictions of him. Again, they hadn’t actually been there, but they tried to capture his influence by placing their fictional subject within a constellation of mythological themes, heroic characters, and revealing episodes.

Thus Jesus the symbol of God became the Second Adam, a New Moses, the son of David, Suffering Servant, Lamb of God, and Word-made-flesh. By wrapping Jesus into this web of myth, they attempted to re-present him to their contemporary audiences, labeling and linking him to ideas then current in the way people characterized the transcendent mystery or Spirit of God. Under none of those titles was Jesus understood to be equal with God in any straightforward sense (which is our working definition of idolatry).

What we have in the early centuries of Christianity, then, is a progression – forward movement but not necessarily improvement – from the historical figure of Jesus, into the contemplation of Jesus as a symbol of God, and arriving finally in a theological orthodoxy that effectively ignores Jesus by making him God.

The paradoxical tension of the second phase (New Testament mythology) has snapped, leaving us with a deity out of this world – but coming soon! – and a Jesus long gone and all but forgotten.

As my diagram shows, the second-phase storytellers inserted what we might call transitional mechanisms into their narratives in order to get Jesus out of the historical past and into their contemplative present (in the episode of his resurrection), and then later (with the ascension) into his identification with God.

By rotating the diagram 90° to the left we thus have the phenomenology of symbol perfectly illustrated: the (once-) tangible Jesus of history, the symbol in whom both human and divine are paradoxically united, and the transcendent mystery beyond name and form – although theologians are famously reluctant to admit it.

As a few early Christian theologians (particularly the so-called Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their close friend Gregory of Nazianzus) were bending logic in their contemplation on Jesus as a symbol of God – “fully divine, fully human, neither separate nor confused” – the emperor Constantine was urging his new kingdom of bishops to make a decision for one side or the other.

The council decided in favor of making Jesus into God. And now he is nowhere to be found.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2019 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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These Three Remain

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:13

Each of us is on a human journey, but only a few will reach our destination. A sizable fraction will be cut short by accident, violence, malnutrition or disease – from causes the rest of us could do better at eradicating. The major percentage, however, don’t expire before their time but actually give up on themselves and settle for a life of mediocrity. Many of these, too, have suffered at the hands of others, though their injuries are not so much physical as spiritual.

How does one’s spirit suffer injury? Well, if we define spiritual intelligence as our awareness of being grounded in mystery, connected to others, and belonging to the universe, then any event which shatters this unity consciousness or undermines its development is a cause of spiritual injury.

The necessary formation of a separate center of personal identity – what we call the ego – already puts a strain on this sense of oneness, as occupying one’s own center implies a distinction between self and not-self (or other). And when you factor in the ignorance, insecurities, twisted convictions, and social irresponsibility of those in charge of supervising our ego formation, it’s no wonder that spiritual injury is so widespread.

Instead of first focusing on the problem, I prefer to piece together what an optimal outcome would look like, and then use that picture to see where things commonly fall out of alignment. What does it take to strengthen spiritual intelligence so as to develop and amplify unity consciousness, rather than merely accommodate our spiritual injuries or build pathological religions around them?

My diagram replays a familiar scheme from earlier posts: the arc of character tracks across our individual lifespan and between the two powerful force fields of nature and culture. I’ve made the point elsewhere that nature and nurture (another name for culture) are insufficient to explain our destiny as individuals. We must add to these a ‘third force’ of our personal choices, their consequences, and the habits of character that we form over time. These habits of belief, thought, preference, feeling, and behavior slowly but surely form deep ruts or automatic routines that hold us captive inside.

For each of us, character grows steadily stronger with time, and the more deep-set those ruts and routines become, the more unlikely and difficult it is to change.

When we are born (depicted in my diagram by a stroller) the force of nature is dominant in the urgencies, drives, inclinations, and reflexes which life has evolved in us. Immediately (following the rising arc) the force of culture exerts itself in the parenting, training, instruction, and role assignments that shape our animal psychology into a well-behaved member of the tribe. Eventually this force of culture loosens up somewhat (in the arc’s descent), allowing us to retire and settle into our elder years, until nature claims us again (depicted by a gravestone). The time between our birth and death, then, progresses through the tense intermediate region between nature and culture.

I’ve divided the arc of our lifespan into trimesters, and further identified each trimester with an essential theme, concern, or optimal realization we need to come to during that phase (if not before).

In the first trimester, when we are young, dependent, and especially vulnerable, we need to experience reality as provident. I don’t equate this notion of providence with a belief in god – although a deity’s capacity and virtue in providing for his or her devotees is certainly traceable as a metaphor to the early experience of being cared for by our taller powers. Here, providence refers to how the universe supports and provides for the flourishing of life, sentience, and self-consciousness.

Our reciprocal capacity for relaxing into being and surrendering our existence in trust to a provident reality is known as faith – the first of “these three” that optimally remain throughout our life. The word is commonly used these days as a synonym for belief, as in those articles of doctrine that distinguish, say, Christian faith from the Jewish or Islamic faith traditions. Whereas this uses the term to make separations among different religions, its deeper (and original) meaning has to do with the inward act of releasing oneself to the present mystery of reality – a mystery which, indeed, the religions do represent differently in their own ways.

Faith itself, however, is the property of no individual religion but rather the source experience of all healthy and relevant ones.

As development in maturity continues to lift us higher into the force field of culture, our experience becomes increasingly context-determined by the values, beliefs, traditions, and worldview of our tribe. If we carry within us a deep openness to reality as provident (i.e., faith), then this second trimester guides us to the critical opportunities that invite and realize our potential. As my diagram illustrates, the threshold between providence and opportunity is where we discover what is possible.

Not everything is possible – despite what well-meaning parents tell their starry-eyed kids – but much more is possible than our assumptions (i.e., habits of thought and belief) allow us to notice or admit.

A perspective on reality that holds open a positive expectation for the future is what we call hope. Similar to how we needed to distinguish genuine faith from religious beliefs, it’s important not to confuse genuine hope with mere wishful thinking. The latter is characterized by an inability or unwillingness to accept what is and to wish that things could be different. Hope, on the other hand, begins with acceptance and looks forward to the future already emerging in the present. Whereas wishful thinking tends to break away from reality, hope stays with it – even when it’s uncertain or painful – and seeks to join the creative transformation currently underway.

Over time, the open question of what is possible gathers focus as attention to what truly matters. It typically takes decades of trial and error, sampling reality and testing our opinions regarding its deeper value. Things matter not so much (anymore) on the scale of how they make us feel or help us get what we want, but rather (increasingly) for the connection they provide to the unbroken wholeness of all things.

Our conceptual name for this unbroken wholeness is ‘universe’, literally the turning unity of existence; experientially we name it communion, the intuitive awareness of being together as one.

What really matters, then, is what confirms, repairs, or reconciles us to the hidden wholeness of being. As we are brought back into conscious union with the present mystery of reality, we ourselves become whole and our lives become more harmonious. The delusion of separateness, which had attended and to some extent supported the formation of our personal identity, dissolves in the light of our realization that we aren’t – and never really were – separate from it all. Such a realization can be summed up in the fresh discovery that We’re all in this together.

How are we to live in view of this universal truth of communion? Not for ourselves alone, or in the interest of our tribe alone, but for the wellbeing of the whole – the whole human community, the whole web of life, for the planet and our shared future, for those yet unborn. The principle we’re talking about is, of course, love. Not mere affection or ‘just a feeling’. Not a preferential regard for insiders only, but the creative outflow of goodwill, generosity, and lovingkindness – uncalculated and unrestrained, given out of the infinite capacity of the One Life that we all together are.

In his letter to the church in Greek Corinth, the apostle Paul penned what would become arguably the greatest Ode to Love ever written. After contemplating the mystery of faith and clarifying the focus of Christian hope, he confessed that without their fulfillment in a love that is both active and boundless, nothing else ultimately matters.

Without love, we are on our own.

 

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Easter Without Miracles

Jesus of Nazareth went into the tomb, and Christ the Lord came out.

Jesus was crucified by a conspiracy of Ego, Orthodoxy, and Empire. His message was about the ‘good news’ (gospel) of human liberation and the invitation to life in community. The opposition he confronted on the political, religious, and personal levels was not interested in surrendering control to the spiritual power he both embodied and awakened in others. ‘The world’ – a term used in the New Testament as shorthand for this conspiracy of dark forces – had no choice but to put him away. For Ego, Orthodoxy, and Empire, surrendering is not an option.

A good deal of energy has been wasted on the interpretation of Easter as a physical miracle where the dead Jesus was brought back to life. The so-called resurrection might as well have been a mere resuscitation, had less time elapsed after his death. Even though the New Testament’s biggest advocate (and probable originator) of the belief in the resurrection of Jesus never mentions an empty tomb or the revival of a dead body – indeed for Paul resurrection (literally a raising up) names the process by which Jesus was liberated, exalted, and glorified to the status of Lord – an overwhelming majority of Christians today have reduced it to a mere miracle of coming back to life.

This is supposed to be significant, as it vindicated Jesus as god’s victim of child sacrifice, who saved us from our sins. It’s essential that the body which came out of the tomb is the same that went in; thus the insistence on a ‘bodily resurrection of Jesus’ – one of the Five Fundamentals of evangelical Christianity. If he wasn’t literally (actually, physically) brought back to life, then death hasn’t been vanquished and we are still in our sin, lost forever. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the miracle upon which the entire plan of salvation turns.

After all, didn’t the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15) say as much?

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 

This sounds very much as if Paul regarded the resurrection of Jesus as a physical miracle. It is necessary, however, to hear these words in the mythological context that Paul had in mind. For him Jesus is the Second Adam (or New Man), the archetype for a new age whose saving work offers a revolutionary counterexample to the First Adam of Genesis. Whereas the First Adam had regarded equality with god as something to be grasped and exploited for his personal advantage, Jesus as the Second Adam surrendered himself totally to god’s purpose (see Philippians 2 for another Pauline meditation on this theme).

For his hubris the First Adam was evicted from the garden wherein stood the tree of life, which is another way of saying that the penalty for his overreaching pride was mortality, or death. As the archetype of humanity (according to this mythology), the First Adam set the pattern for all subsequent generations and was spiritually active (we might say) in each and every one of us – until Jesus, that is. In acknowledgment of the humble devotion and self-sacrifice of Jesus, god ‘raised him up’, metaphorically giving him access to the paradisal tree of life. Identifying with the Second Adam rather than the First makes Jesus spiritually active in the individual Christian. In his letter to the Christians in Galatia Paul says,

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. 

All of this is to show that Paul, who is widely respected by Christians as our biblical authority on the resurrection of Jesus, did not see it as a miracle in history but as representing a seismic shift for human nature and destiny played out in the archetypal realm – that is to say, in the realm of mythology. This doesn’t mean that ‘nothing happened’, but rather that it’s always happening, that it’s poised to happen again, right now, if we’re prepared to take the myth seriously … but not literally. Taking a myth like this literally, treating it as if the figures and events it describes are in the past (or in the case of apocalyptic myths, the future) drains it of life and power, reducing it to something which must be believed or otherwise dismissed as incredible.

So let me come back to my original statement:

Jesus of Nazareth went into the tomb, and Christ the Lord came out.

Because he challenged the politico-economic system (Empire) of his day and championed the rights of the poor, Jesus was arrested and crucified by Roman authorities. His advocacy on behalf of the many who were suffering under the boot of Roman oppression, pushed ever deeper into debt just to survive, made him an enemy of those in positions of wealth and power. Empire is not simply a form of government, but a domination system that thrives on the exploitation of labor, the burden of debt and confiscation of property, along with a ruthless response to protest, disobedience, and rebellion.

At the time, religious leadership in Judaism was doing its best to regulate what ‘seemed right’ (ortho-dox) with respect to proper behavior, moral purity, observing the Sabbath, and keeping themselves separate from sinners. Jesus played loose with these rules and even deliberately transgressed on them, to the point where these leaders also wanted him gone. As Orthodoxy takes the mind captive to certain convictions, closing down on meaning and ruling out any sense or experience of the grounding mystery and greater community of life, his refusal to give up creative authority for blind obedience made him a threat here as well.

And his essential message, which had to do with an urgency upon the individual to set aside self-interest (Ego) in service of the greater good, effectively called for a reversal in values and motivation, from the centripetal preoccupations of ‘me and mine’ to a centrifugal engagement with ‘all of us, together’. The ambitions of Ego for security, superiority, significance, and worldly success had to be surrendered for the liberation and fulfillment he promised – and for many it was too much to ask. We can blame Empire and Orthodoxy for putting Jesus away, but ultimately it was (and still is) Ego that sealed his tomb.

In the days that followed, a few of his disciples came to realize that Jesus had been so much more than an individual whose way of life had gotten him in trouble with the authorities. Paul recognized in the memory of Jesus the spirit of a New Man (or Second Adam) who opens for all of us the path to life in its fullness. His spirit – not his ghost but the vital energy and continuing influence of his exemplary life – is as real now as it was then.

It was at this point, by a fresh discovery and reorientation to what Jesus had been all about, that Christ the Lord came out of the tomb.Easter

 

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Remembering Jesus at Christmas

American Christianity

It’s funny how quickly people pick up the Christmas script this time of year, talking about how “Jesus is the reason for the season.” We scurry about from store to store, looking for just the right holiday decorations, cards, and gifts. We load up our credit cards and keep retailers in business for another year. This might be one of the two times this year that many of us go to church.

Did I say funny? I meant profoundly sad … and appalling. Just look how far off the path we have gotten from the original Jesus.

Despite the odd mix of ignorance and conviction that spins inside many of our churches Sunday after Sunday, we actually know quite a lot about the historical Jesus – about the actual individual who lived and died nearly 2000 years ago. We have to go behind the thick screen of mythology that began taking shape shortly after his death. Our New Testament, far from being an historical account of objective facts, is a complicated braid of distinct mythological traditions representing the diverse groups that grew out of the severed stump of his failed revolution.

The cross of Jesus is at once the symbol of his message and the sign of his violent end. As symbol it speaks of his compassionate solidarity with the poor as well as his courageous resistance to the political and religious regimes of his day. What is called “the gospel of Jesus” is not the orthodox doctrines about him, but the vision of a new world-order he professed and the ethic he both taught and demonstrated in his life.

Jesus condemned the social divisions of rich and poor, of “clean” and “unclean,” of insiders and outsiders. By refusing to walk the cattle path of moral mediocrity, which in every society provides the necessary justification for prejudice, bigotry, and defensive self-concern, he provoked a strong reaction in those whose state-appointed or god-ordained role was to uphold the current way of things.

What really agitated his detractors was his message and lifestyle of radical love. For Jesus, this type of love – not the sweet sentiment that commonly goes by the name – is so deep and far-reaching that it can neither be possessed nor measured out by preference. Such a love must extend so far as to include even our enemy: this call to unconditional forgiveness was ultimately what made it necessary to put Jesus away. He challenged his friends to go beyond the god of orthodoxy whose reluctant obligation to condemn sinners had effectively set a limit on forgiveness and granted divine endorsement of a shock-and-awe retribution when an enemy will not repent.

After his death, various followers committed themselves to living according his vision and example. For decades they were persecuted, driving some into hiding and others into outlying towns or deserts where they could cultivate his way of life. Another early Christian stream came under the charismatic leadership of a Jew named Saul (later Paul), who worked diligently to marry its Hebrew heritage to the Greek (gentile) mindset.

Using symbolism already present in Greek mystery religions – many of which were dedicated to a divine figure of the grain field and vineyard who died and was transmuted into the bread and wine enjoyed by devotees in a sacred meal  – Paul weaved together strands of Hebrew and Greek mythology. The product of his invention was “the Lord Jesus, who died and was raised.” His new body is the community of believers devoted to carrying his message and spirit into the world.

Some forms of early Christianity were oriented in this way, striving to realize the spirit of Jesus in their manner of life; while others, mostly groups still at the epicenter of Roman persecution, looked to a future day when the risen Jesus who had been temporarily taken up into heaven would return on the clouds with vindication for the oppressed and vengeance for their enemies.

After Paul came the Gospels, which gave more attention to developing the mythological backstory of Jesus. Here we find the symbols of a virgin birth, miraculous signs and wonders, an empty tomb, a vertical ascent of the risen Jesus into the sky with the promise of coming again, while continuing to be present where even two or three gather in his name, to the end of time. All of this mythology and its metaphysical framework conspired in a dramatic makeover of Jesus into one divinely ordained, filled with the Holy Spirit, the very (one and only) Son of God, and (in the coming centuries) Second Person of the Divine Trinity.

Along the way also, as the emerging Christendom sidled up to the State and eventually took over the reigns of political power, the essential message of Jesus concerning radical love and unconditional forgiveness was almost entirely forgotten. In its place Christian orthodoxy installed a worldview that divided heaven from earth, soul from body, man from woman, logic from feeling, and (once again) insiders from outsiders. In its soteriology (theory of salvation) orthodoxy once again elevated justice over compassion and glorified redemptive violence as god’s final solution to sin. The upshot of it all was to get the saved soul safely to heaven where true believers would receive their reward for faith and obedience while on earth.

With the shift from a feudal economy in the Middle Ages to a market economy in the dawn of modernity, Christianity established incumbency among the middle class. As capitalism took hold and spread, the ability to accumulate wealth and reinvest it for profit, or else spend it on the luxuries of a more leisurely lifestyle, inspired some to regard their good fortune as a sign of god’s favor. God’s desire is that we have all we need in abundance, and that we should be charitable to those in need. Rather than challenging the status quo and rattling the system that oppresses the poor, as Jesus had done, the Prosperity Gospel supports programs that only temporarily relieve the poor but leave the structures of inequity intact.

And so we come to American Christianity. Probably most true believers I’ve known – and I served churches as a professional pastor for nearly 20 years – care little about religious orthodoxy, or wouldn’t care if they knew even a little about it. They are familiar with that tired old rip about believing in Jesus as your personal Lord and savior, but their intellectual grasp on what that means is feeble indeed. For the most part they recite the doctrines and verses taught to them in Sunday School, go to church once in a while, and try to be good citizens of the American empire. One day Jesus will come again, or maybe they’ll depart this life and get to see him before he makes his descent.

This Christmas provides us an opportunity to look past the holiday glitz, behind the orthodoxy and beneath even the mythology of our Christian religion. We can, even now, remember Jesus. His vision for the world and our human future is just as relevant today, and his message is as urgently needed now as ever before.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2015 in Timely and Random

 

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Human Doing and Human Being

Morality (from the Latin mos, custom): Folkways of central importance accepted without question and embodying the fundamental moral views of a group.

Ethics (from the Greek ethos, custom): The body of moral principles or values governing or distinctive of a particular culture or group.

My description of the ethical function of religion has prompted a few of my readers to request a more careful definition of what I mean by the term “ethical,” and how (or whether) it differs from another word, “moral,” that is commonly used in this regard. Before I answer this question, I’d like to put the ethical function of religion back into context where it serves as the fulfillment-in-behavior of an experience that begins in the (sometimes shocking) awareness of the grounding mystery in which All is One (i.e., the mystical function).Four Functions of Religion_TreeIt’s helpful to consider the system of religion’s four functions on the analogy of a tree. The mystical function corresponds to the tree’s roots reaching deep into the silent ground, while the ethical function is symbolized in the fruit, which is where the mystical nourishment from down within finds productive expression and fulfillment. As I see it, this flow from mystical experience to ethical behavior is not direct, but is rather mediated through the other two functions of religion.

The articulate structure of the tree’s trunk and branches represents the doctrinal function, which is where the spontaneous realization of oneness is converted into meaning. (Don’t we still talk about the various “branches” of knowledge?) Ultimately, the behavioral product (or produce) of ethical conduct calls on the support of inquiry, judgment, reasons, and justifications – in other words, it depends on a context of meaning. We don’t just “automatically” do the right thing; ethics is about intentional behavior that involves a reasonably articulate understanding of what really (and ultimately) matters in a given situation.

In my illustration above, the leaves of the tree are opened out to the light of the sun from whence they draw the energy necessary for photosynthesis. Both the sun and the outreaching leaves symbolize the devotional function of religion – the sun as a representation of the deity, and the sunward orientation of the leaves representing the aspiration of devotees. In religion the deity isn’t only “above” the community as the object of its worship; he or she is also “ahead” of the community as its aspirational ideal, depicting the higher virtues (compassion, kindness, fidelity, forgiveness, etc.) into which human nature is evolving. As they elevate a merciful god in their worship, the community is really glorifying the virtue of mercy itself as an ideal worthy of worship …

… and worthy of ethical pursuit. This is where in theism the devotional and ethical functions connect. And whereas in theism proper this connection operates under the radar of explicit awareness, in post-theism the literary character of the deity is appreciated as a construct of the mythic imagination which has been evolving in an ego-transcending and humanitarian direction over its long career.

This distinction between behavior that is pre-reflective – “under the radar of explicit awareness” – and behavior that is guided by critical reflection is the most helpful way of distinguishing morality and ethics. As can be seen in the dictionary definitions above, both words trace back to the same basic idea (a “custom” or way of doing something), one deriving from Latin and the other from Greek.

As their meanings later merged and developed in common usage, morality and ethics became differentiated to where morality now refers to the “unquestioned” rules and value-judgments that group members live by, while ethics entails a higher level of philosophical reflection on the principles that (perhaps should) govern human behavior.

This difference corresponds exactly, I would argue, with the phases of “early” and “late” theism, where early theism enjoins right behavior “because god commands it and will punish you if you don’t” and late theism exhorts followers to “be merciful as your father in heaven is merciful” (Jesus in Luke 6:36). This is the shift from obedience to aspiration, which I have suggested is a leading indicator in the genuine progress of theism into post-theism (see “Stuck on God“).

We all know that Nietzsche was bitterly critical of what he called “morality,” urging his generation towards the ideal of his “Overman” or ethical superman who throws off the chains of unquestioned moral customs – especially if these are placed beyond question by ecclesiastic orthodoxy – in order to take up their own lives in world-affirming passion. He didn’t believe that taking away the moral prescriptions of childhood would leave grownups without ethical purpose or direction. In this respect Nietzsche sounds a lot like the apostle Paul:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13:11)

Our continuing challenge, as I see it, is to urge adults to grow up and not stay in that comfortable groove where because I said so – the “I” here being the parent, the police, or the patron deity – is the motive force behind our actions. True enough, actual children need this supervisory incentive for pro-social behavior, as their brains and social worldview are still in the process of opening up beyond the limited range of self-interest.

What we need are adult caregivers and educators who have advanced sufficiently into their own self-actualization and expanded horizons-of-life to support and encourage youngsters into maturity with “reasonable urgency.” We can still speak to them of provident reality in personal terms, as god’s benevolent care for all creatures, even as god’s loving concern for each of us. But at some point, the adolescent needs to be invited to take up his or her creative authority and become a self-responsible benefactor of the greater good, to embrace life on the other side of god (post theos).

So we progress, however slowly and by fits and starts, from morality to ethics.

 

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