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Christian Mythology Through A Post-theistic Lens

After leaving Christian ministry as a church pastor my journey has taken me deeper into the frontier of post-theism, and it’s been my new “calling” since then to clarify the meaning of this emergent form of spirituality. I have worked hard to distinguish post-theism from its progenitor (theism), as well as from its much younger sibling (atheism) who seeks to discredit their parent and be done with the whole family affair.

Even as a church pastor I was intrigued by the mythology of early Christianity, which was inspired no doubt by the historical disturbance of Jesus himself, to be later developed by the likes of Paul and the four Evangelists into a story of world-historical and even cosmic scope. Intuitively I sensed that the story was not really about long-ago events or faraway places, despite what my denomination and its theological tradition wanted me to believe and preach to the congregations I served.

Maybe I didn’t need to get out of church in order to find the deeper truth of Christianity, but it certainly helped.

Outside the imaginarium of stained-glass windows, vestments, liturgies, rituals, and hymns, the transforming effects of its originary experience coalesced for me in a singular revelation. It was – and for now we have to speak in the past tense since both popular and orthodox Christianity have all but lost their sightlines to the source – not about being saved from hell or rescued to heaven, pleasing god and getting our reward.

All of these negative and positive incentives hook into something without which they would have no power. It’s not that we had to wait for modern science to demythologize the underworld and outer space, or for anthropological studies to expose the historical origins of religion before we could let go and move on. Their hooks are in us, quite independent of whether and to what degree we may be children of the Enlightenment.

In my investigations into the development of religion through the millenniums of human history, it struck me that its three major paradigms – classified as animism, theism, and post-theism – are each centered in a distinct dimension of our human experience.

Animism is centered in our animality with its immersion in the fluid forces of nature, life, and instinct. Theism is centered in our personality and particularly involved with the formation and maintenance of ego identity in the social context. And post-theism – that latter-day evolution of religion “after god” – is centered in our spirituality, where we begin to cultivate the grounding mystery of our existence and live in the realization that all is One.

My objective in this blog has been to show how theism prepares for the emergence of post-theism, and where alternatively it gets hung up, spinning out more heat than light. We happen to be in the throes of that dynamic right now, as the paroxysms of pathological theism – in the forms of fundamentalism, dogmatism, terrorism, and complacency – multiply around us.

With all of this in view, it’s tempting to join the chorus of atheists who are pressing to extinguish theism in all its forms, or at least to ignore it in hopes it will just go away.

But it won’t go away: another recurring theme in this blog of mine. Theism has a role to play, and pulling it down will not only destroy what core of wisdom still remains, but also foreclose on a flourishing human future on this planet by clipping the fruit of post-theism before it has a chance to ripen. This fruit is what I call genuine community.

Theism evolved for the purpose of preparing the way for genuine community, although its own inherent tendencies toward tribalism, authoritarianism, and orthodoxy have repeatedly interfered. This is just where the struggle for post-theism will make some enemies.

Returning to my autobiographical confessions, over time and with distance I came to realize where it is that Christian post-theism emerges from Christian theism, and it is precisely where Jewish post-theism emerged from Jewish theism. One place in particular where a post-theistic breakthrough in Judaism was attempted but ended up failing was in the life and teachings of Jesus.

This failure eventuated in the rise of Christian theism (or Christianity), which made Jesus the center of its orthodoxy, though not as revealer of the liberated life but rather the linchpin of its doctrinal system.

Just prior to the point when the early ‘Jesus movement’ was co-opted and effectively buried (for a second time!) beneath layers of dogmatic tradition and ecclesiastical politics, the apostle Paul and the four Evangelists had grasped the energizing nerve of Jesus’ message. Immediately – or rather I should say spontaneously, out of what I earlier called an originary experience – they translated its transforming mystery into metaphorical and mythological meaning.

Whether they borrowed from the cultural store of symbolism available at the time or brought it up from the depths of their own mythopoetic imaginations (which is really where the shared store originates), these mythmakers of earliest Christianity employed images of divine adoption, virgin birth, heroic deeds, resurrection, ascension, and apocalypse, lacing these into the Jewish-biblical epic of creation, exodus, Pentecost, promised land, and a future messianic age.

The product of their efforts was indeed vast in scope and deeply insightful into what in my ministry days I called “the first voice of Jesus.”

As briefly as I can, I will now lift out of that early mythology the kernel of Jesus’ message, focusing his intention to move Jewish theism into a post-theistic paradigm. Although it largely failed with the rise of orthodox Christianity, there’s still a chance that we can pick up his cause and work together in realizing his vision of genuine community.


Very quickly, my diagram illustrates an extremely compressed time line of cosmic history, starting with the so-called Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, and progressing by stages (or eras) from matter to life, from life to mind, and in this last second of cosmic time, from sentient mind to the self-conscious center of personal identity that you name “I-myself” (Latin ego).

As the picture suggests, the story doesn’t stop there, since the formation of ego is intended to connect you with others, serving also as the executive center of self-awareness and your uniquely personal aspirations.

The formation of an individual center of personal identity creates the illusion of separateness – that you and another are separate individuals. There is truth in this illusion, of course, in that you are in fact not the same person but two different persons with your own experiences, feelings, thoughts, and desires. This illusion of separateness is what post-theism seeks to help you transcend by making you aware that it is an illusion, or in other words, a mere social construction of identity.

Self-transcendence, then, does not mean ripping down the veil of illusion, but rather seeing through it to the higher truth of unity beyond your apparent separateness. That is to say, your separate identity is affirmed in order that it can be used to support your leap beyond it and into relational wholeness (or at-one-ment).

It is critically important to understand, however, that in genuine community otherness is not subtracted or dissolved away, which would leave only an undifferentiated ‘mush’ and not the dynamic mutuality you are longing for (according to post-theism).

Hand in hand with this theme of atonement is another page from the teachings of Jesus and post-theism generally, which goes by the name apotheosis (literally a process of changing into [the likeness of] god). This is not about becoming a god, but expressing out of your deeper human nature – which according to the Jewish myth was created in the image of god (Genesis 1) – those virtues whereupon genuine community depends and flourishes.

Compassion, generosity, fidelity, and forgiveness: such are among the divine virtues that theism elevates in its worship of god. Apotheosis is thus the ascent of self-actualization by which these virtues attributed to god are now internalized and activated in you, to be carried to expression in a life that is compassionate, generous, faithful, and forgiving.

This is another way, then, of pulling aside the illusion of separateness in which personal identity is suspended.

My depth analysis of early Christian mythology thus revealed two profound thematic threads reaching back to the first voice of Jesus. From inside theism and beneath the picture-language of its mythology, god is apprehended as both Other and Ideal. As Other – or more precisely, as the divine principle of otherness – god represents the irreducible interplay of one and another in genuine community. And as Ideal, god is the progressive rise of those deep potentials within each of us, surfacing to realization in the higher virtues of genuine community.

In early Christian mythology (found in the extended Gospel of Luke called the Acts of the Apostles) we are presented with the symbol of Pentecost, as the transforming moment when the Holy Spirit (or the risen Jesus) comes to dwell within the new community, which Paul had already named the Body of Christ. From now on, the life of this new community would be the communal incarnation of god on earth.

Had it taken root, the ensuing adventure would have marked a new era of spirituality, on the other side of – but paradoxically not without or against – god.

Jesus himself envisioned this in his metaphor of the kingdom of god – or more relevantly, the kindom of spirit. In truth we are all kin – neighbors, strangers, and enemies alike. All is One, and we are all in this together. Good news indeed!

 

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The Gravity and Glory of Existence

What is the meaning of Easter?

Is it just about someone who died nearly two thousand years ago and came back to life? For almost half its history, Christianity celebrated Easter as its principal message to the world. As the Middle Ages dawned, however, the focus shifted to the Atonement where Jesus was supposed to have accomplished his world-saving work. Since then, Easter has been the ups y-daisy to Good Friday’s (only apparent) tragedy.

Just look at the difference in iconography between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic (Latin) traditions. In the former, Jesus is risen, radiant, and very alive, while in the latter he hangs on his cross, gaunt, emaciated, and dead. And even though the Protestant churches replaced the Catholic crucifix with an empty cross, the centrality of Jesus’ sacrificial death continued into the Reformation. Consequently, the narrative of Easter has been interpreted as God’s “Yes” (on Sunday) to the world’s “No” (on Good Friday) – a great reversal where the humiliation of the cross was trumped by the glory of resurrection, ascension, and celestial coronation (as depicted in so much late-medieval and Renaissance art).

My frustration has to do with how this focus on Good Friday and Easter as events in the career of Jesus, while presumably benefiting the world by extension, keeps them back there in history and locked inside a literal Bible. Perhaps our invention of the literal Bible – of a Bible that must be taken literally – is more a political tactic designed to protect our possession of truth against competitors, heretics, and potential converts, than it is out of reverence for the Holy Question at the heart of existence which it seeks to answer across its pages.

Religion is not principally about the supernatural, immortality, or getting to heaven. It begins (or once began) in the realization that human existence is not entirely enclosed by nature and instinct, but stands rather as an open question that subsequently gets worked out (but never finally satisfied) in our quest for belonging, identity, and purpose. This open question calls to us from a beyond within ourselves and asks “Why am I here?” – the primitive and mystical origin of the later philosophical conundrum “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Religion, then, is the more or less systematic way that this question of existence – this Holy Question – is answered. We call it holy because it has the character and feel of otherness, of addressing us from elsewhere. Perhaps because it is so relentless and restless, refusing to leave us alone, human beings universally have acknowledged it as “Thou.” Significantly, in our Bible the recurring word “repent” refers to a turn in response to being called.

Everything in religion, from its symbolism and mythology (sacred stories), to its rituals and devotional practices, is in effect an elaborate answer to this Holy Question of why I am here, why you are here, why are we here together. Where do we belong? How are we related? What are we here to do?

Even our theological construct of God as the supreme being who created the universe, watches over us, puts expectations on us and holds us accountable, is a projected personification of what human beings have believed to stand on the sending side of the Holy Question.

So when I contemplate the story of Easter, I want to listen for how it answers the question “Why am I here?” I won’t be distracted by the popular, and as I said, very modern assumption that the truth of the story is reducible to historical events – supernatural interventions and miracles purported to have happened long ago. There’s no need to trade our twenty-first century cosmology (theory of the universe) for the first-century cosmology assumed by the Gospel writers, where the up-and-down traffic between earth, heaven, and the underworld presented a perfectly acceptable plot for sacred story.

Since it’s not concerned with describing objective events, I don’t need to leave my intellect at the door before entering the imaginarium of myth.

With the Easter story, as in any sacred myth, we need to stay observant for those epiphanies at the surface where something more is being said or shown. Such locations are marked by images, metaphors, and archetypes that, as it were, pivot the axis of meaning from the horizontal plane of the narrative plot in order to engage deeper (or higher) dimensions. This is where we find an answer to the Holy Question, and if we stay engaged at this level, without allowing the metaphor to flatten out and lose its power, we stand a chance of being confronted and grasped by a profound truth.

For me, there is one image in the Easter story that speaks in this way. It’s not the empty tomb or the angels or even the appearance of the risen Jesus to early morning visitors. Actually, it is an appearance of Jesus, but one that happens on Easter evening among the company of disciples who had closed themselves inside a locked room out of fear that the authorities might come looking for them next.

Only the Third and Fourth Gospels (Luke and John) include this epiphany – this archetypal answer to the Holy Question “Why am I here?” – so it either originated with Luke (who wrote earlier) and was adapted by John, or it was circulating in some early Christian source outside them both.

So there stands Jesus, probably in his skivvies or buck naked. (He had been stripped of his clothes while hanging on the cross, and, according to John, the linen cloths that some women had used in his funerary preparation on Friday evening were found neatly folded inside his burial cave Sunday morning.) “Relax, it’s okay” – or “Peace be with you,” he says to his friends. And then …

Gravity_GloryAnd then the risen Jesus holds out his hands and feet, bearing the wounds of crucifixion where spikes had been driven through into wood. (In John’s version he also shows them the gash in his side where a Roman spear had confirmed his death.) The wounds of a dead man borne in the body of a living man.

That’s the image, the answer to the Holy Question. It’s presented in the myth as an ironic metaphor, one that contains a contradiction (a living dead man) and holds open an irreconcilable paradox.

If Jesus is The Archetypal Man in early Christian mythology – and this is clearly the case as the apostle Paul pointed out many times in his writings (which predate the Gospels) – then in this particular story he is representing all of us; or more poignantly, each of us.

A human being is both subject to the gravity of existence and the bearer of its glory.

During his brief public ministry, Jesus had demonstrated deep compassion for those afflicted under the grind of abject poverty, chronic pain, spiritual emptiness, and political oppression. Instead of preaching to them of pie in the sky or training them in techniques of meditative detachment, he got down into their suffering with them and did what he could to help them out. (The stories of miracle healings, which all the Gospels employ in their portraits of Jesus, carry this memory of how Jesus stepped into the suffering of others with caring support and saved them from despair.)

In addition to taking on the human condition evident in the afflictions of others, Jesus was remembered by the way he accepted – but not merely in a passive mode; rather, how he embraced – his own mortality, especially with the growing prospect of a violent death on his horizon. His challenge to the disciples to “take up your cross,” even if the overt reference to crucifixion was a gloss added later by storytellers, expresses an understanding that commitment to human solidarity and liberation will likely land one in trouble with authorities.

And Rome loved its crosses.

In the face of death, Jesus didn’t back down. As the political and religious heat grew around his notoriety and it was clear there would be no way out, he remained steadfast and resolute in his vision of a world free of bigotry, dogmatism, violence, and fear. True enough, he died for his belief – but more importantly, for the way he demonstrated his belief in action.

Perhaps at first, in the period of time represented in the story as a sabbath of sorrow when all hope seemed lost, Jesus’ vision was regarded a failure.

At some point, however – and again, a three-day event cycle in the narrative probably conveys the meaning of complete transformation, as it still does in contemporary fiction and film – someone in the company of mourners remembered the character of their leader as one who had lived a compassionate, brave, and authentically human life. Upon reflection, he had shown them how to combine grace and courage, passion and humility, how to live like you’re dying.

This is where I think the Holy Question surfaced in the consciousness of Jesus’ bereaved disciples. “Why am I here?” The gravity and glory of human existence had been paradoxically revealed in Jesus, and the ironic metaphor of him standing there in their midst – a living dead man, a man who answered the Holy Question by living fully into his death – ignited their hearts and started a revolution.

Just before he leaves them, Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Now it’s your turn.”

That’s what Easter means to me.

 

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Growing Into God

Atonement_ApotheosisThe developmental aim of a human being is to become a well-grounded, fully centered, and creative authority; a caring, autonomous, and responsible adult. According to this definition, an adult is more than just a “grown up,” someone who has reached a certain age and stage of physical maturity. As I’m using the term, adult refers to an individual that has attained a level of self-actualization and fulfillment of the species. What the species holds in potential is thus actualized, or actively expressed, to some degree in the adult individual.

This process of self-actualization is illustrated in the above diagram, and in a moment I will take you on a quick tour. Anticipating the primary focus of this blog post, however, I want to direct your attention to a crucial point where the very natural adventure of becoming an adult (as I’m using the term) frequently gets hung up and held back. Here we find two words with a deep history: atonement and apotheosis. Atonement describes a procedure by which the individual sinner – using traditional Christian language – is reconciled back to the deity and, importantly, to the covenant community. (The patron deity and his tribe always go together in theism as co-evolving counterparts.)

Apotheosis is less familiar, although it too is deeply rooted in myth, politics, and religion. In the Latin (Roman Catholic) West and its Protestant step-children, apotheosis never officially made it into Christian orthodoxy – and it’s not hard to guess why.

While the term names a politically self-serving proclamation by a Roman emperor of his deceased predecessor’s deification, apotheosis in religion also refers to a human being’s progress into God; not merely getting closer to the deity in prayer and devotion, but growing into God to the degree that the human being is sanctified, glorified, and awakens to divinity. That’s why it couldn’t be allowed into orthodoxy – at least in the great Western branch (and countless splintering twigs) of Christian orthodoxy.

The Western traditions (Roman Catholic and Protestant) picked up on the Jewish-biblical theme of atonement and made it the fulcrum of orthodoxy. Humanity’s sinful condition separates us from god, and the process of returning to right relationship (called reconciliation) is conceived as a juridical transaction involving exoneration from guilt by the satisfaction of a penalty and the judgment of god (or his ordained church officials) that the sinner is forgiven (called justification). The benefit is a clear conscience, but more importantly it means restoration to good standing with god and the covenant community.

It’s this idea of being brought back to a position temporarily forfeited by the rupture of sin – or perhaps permanently forfeited if proper atonement is not made – that is particularly interesting, especially when contrasted with the progressive, forward-moving, and transformational notion of apotheosis whereby the individual advances to a heretofore unrealized state of being.

There are reasons why atonement rather than apotheosis became the fulcrum of Western Christian orthodoxy, which I won’t dig into right now. Most likely this preference was driven by such factors as religious persecution (which tends to unify the victimized community), the strong juridical theme in Jewish mythology (Yahweh as king and judge; salvation as being set free of debt and guilt), and the fact that early Christianity grew up in the Roman era with its overriding governmental, judicial, legal and military obsessions.

But let’s go back for that tour I promised, showing how this tension between the pull-back of atonement and the forward aim of apotheosis is relevant to understanding the threshold between theism and post-theism.

The hero of our story – the one we’re all so concerned about, whom I name Captain Ego – gets started on the adventure by restraining and redirecting natural impulses of the body into behavior that is socially compliant and proper. With considerable help from the tribe in the form of guidance, feedback, and discipline, individual identity (ego) gradually establishes a center of self-control, social recognition, and personal agency.

But before that center gets established, the individual needs to secure strong bonds of dependency and trust with the provident powers responsible for his or her care. The ensuing condition of attachment sustains the individual – this gestating sense of self – in a web of support where he or she feels safe, accepted, and comfortably enveloped. (There is probably a deep visceral memory of what it was like in the paradisal garden of mother’s womb that compels the infant’s quest for oneness.)

Of course, there’s no going back. Besides, the ego is compelled by a second drive, which is to separate itself from this comfortable anonymity and stand out in freedom, to be recognized as special and unique. This imperative is what’s behind that signature feature of Western civilization: its individualism, its infatuation with stand-out celebrity, unprecedented achievement, and heroic glory. As you can tell, this pursuit of freedom and self-importance stands in direct opposition to the ego’s need to fit in and belong.

Welcome to the inherently conflicted adventureland of personal identity.

Further progress into adulthood – that is, into the human fulfillment represented in the self-actualized adult – will need to continue with this formational process as the individual awakens to his or her higher self (soul). Earlier identifications will need to be transcended – such as belonging to this tribe and holding these titles or awards – which inevitably is confronted with resistance from society. This is who you are. You are only a person of value and respect because of your standing as one of us. You need to stay here and obey the rules!

A certain guilt is induced with disobedience. And here we’re not talking about ethical violations such as deceit, theft, and murder, which are genuine threats to human community; but rather the kind of disobedience where an individual sets down the masks and steps out of the roles that define identity, in order to assume creative authority in his or her life.

Before the developmentally opportune moment (what in Greek is called kairos, the critical opportunity for action), such forays into a more authentic life will convict the individual with a guilty conscience. But when the time is right and the individual is possessed of sufficient courage to bear the consequences of his or her choices, a guilty conscience will give way to conscientious guilt, willingly accepted in civil disobedience. Conscientious guilt is the price of identifying with goals, principles, and ideals that represent realities and possibilities beyond the sacred conclusions and status quo of the tribe.

Siddhartha (the Buddha) breaking a hole in the wall of the caste system to allow for the liberation even of outcasts, Jesus (the Christ) reaching out to include sinners and the ritually impure, Martin Luther King, Jr. instigating boycotts and leading peace marches against race and class inequality – these are historical examples of individuals who accepted conscientious guilt in pursuit of aims they regarded as more noble and necessary to true human progress.

As a final measure, the tribe might appeal to its patron deity and the precepts laid down by orthodoxy. How can you arrogantly believe that there is more to life than what we have for you here. We are the chosen ones. This is the covenant community, obedient to god and blessed in turn with eternal security. You’ve grown up under the grace and clear directives of our patron deity. You have enjoyed the benefits of membership all these years. And now you are ready to throw it all aside, turn your back on god and us for the sake of your own selfish fulfillment? Excommunication and everlasting torment in hell are what you are really choosing – just be clear about that!

And this is just where atonement works its magic – if it can persuade the waking soul to instead submit to the prescribed procedures of confession and repentance in order to be pardoned and reconciled back to where a true believer rightfully belongs. Things inside run more smoothly when we all stay in our proper place and do what we’re told. Heaven is up, hell is down, and the devil is locked outside. You barely made it back, but good for you!

Or else, this is just where apotheosis makes its fateful move. With the courage not of convictions but of an evolutionary purpose taking root and springing forth from within, the individual draws strength from the grounding mystery and enters more fully into the realization that all is one. It is no longer “me and mine” or “us versus them,” but all of us together, sharing this moment in faith, holding the future open with hope, releasing fear for love.

We are growing into God.

 

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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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