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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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Idols of Orthodoxy, Part 2

You probably saw this coming. In Idols of Orthodoxy I took my reader into the phenomenology of symbols; not an interpretation of this or that symbol – although we used as our example the American flag – but of how symbols themselves are experienced. With that groundwork in place, now we can address a symbol which is central to the Christian religion: Jesus as a symbol of God.

Right away some will protest that Jesus is not merely a ‘symbol’ of God, but God himself. As I want to show, however, this particular point of orthodox doctrine is really a form of idolatry, which is one of the ‘ditches’ we fall into when the tension inherent to a symbol snaps, the other ditch being dualism.

For much of its history, Christian orthodoxy has jumped back and forth between dualism – Jesus and God are two separate objects, one human and the other divine – and idolatry, where Jesus is God, pure and simple.

The attraction of both dualism and idolatry is in their simplicity: thinking in terms of two objects or only one doesn’t require much intellectual effort. Indeed it might be our avoidance of cognitive exercise and the resultant atrophy of thinking that predisposes many of us to take symbols merely at their face value.

What other way can we see them?

Recalling my earlier example of the American flag, Old Glory, we distinguished among a symbol’s three aspects. Its tangible aspect is sensory-physical: the material cloth with its pattern of colors. This is the aspect we perceive with our physical senses. As it relates to Jesus as a symbol of God, we are speaking of the flesh-and-blood individual who lived 2,000 years ago.

His contemporaries saw and heard him as one like themselves in many ways, although some of what he said and did was not only uncommon but downright scandalous and provocative.

Jesus’ career as a symbol of God probably didn’t begin until later in life, most likely breaking into the awareness of his disciples only during his final days and following his death.* Before then, everyone was just trying to make sense of this self-styled wisdom teacher, social activist, and rabble-rouser who seemed intent on disrupting the status quo. His message was appealing, in the way he talked of a foundational dignity in every human being regardless of race, religion, sex, or moral character.

He often focused his audience’s anticipation on a transcendent mystery and power which he spoke of as hidden in the ordinary, disguised in the common, and present even in what we are quick to condemn and discard as worthless. His favorite medium for teaching was a particular type of story known as parable, which as the word implies (para, side by side + bole, to throw) proffered metaphors, similes, and analogies for seeing into the depths of everyday life.

Apparently he lived his own life in such congruity with the present mystery he spoke of, that others began to regard Jesus himself as this mystery personified.

So just as the American flag has a tangible aspect, so did Jesus. And just as it represents a mystery that we can’t pin down or rationally explain (i.e., the American spirit), over time Jesus began to represent for his disciples a mystery named the spirit of God.

As a reminder, the metaphor of spirit (literally breath, air, or wind) in both cases refers to a mystery that cannot be seen except for its effects. Wind isn’t exactly some thing, but is rather an energy or force that moves things and moves through things. It’s important not to lose this primal acknowledgment of mystery as the power infusing everything in the foreground with being, vitality, and significance. In the phenomenology of symbol this is its transcendent aspect.

Just as Jesus’ metaphors and parables were misunderstood by many of his day as pointing to a separate and supernatural object, so did later Christian orthodoxy lose the sense of Jesus as a symbol of God opening to a present mystery that cannot be objectified but only unveiled (or revealed). It’s not that we have a tangible object in Jesus himself and another transcendent object in God – two things, in other words, which are somehow related – but a transcendent mystery revealed in, through, and as his symbolic form.

The only way we can preserve this tension (of in, through, and as) inherent in the symbol is by grasping its paradoxical aspect: not this-or-that (dualism) or this-is-that (idolatry) but both this-and-that. A symbol is both tangible (seen, heard, touched) and transcendent in the way it manifests a mystery which is invisible, ineffable, and beyond our grasp. It’s as if one aspect is turned toward us and the other away from us, as it holds the tension of both.

Yes, we could construct an abstraction named “the American spirit” or “the spirit of God,” but almost immediately thereafter this tension will snap and its symbol fall to one side or the other of a dividing line.

Either Jesus was just another one of us (this side of the line) or he must have been God (the other side). When the paradoxical aspect of a symbol is lost (i.e., the tension snaps) we are left with only two choices. Neither one is all that sophisticated, and both are symptoms of a moribund imagination. Only as we are able to recover our competency for symbol will the metaphors and myths that have long revealed the deeper truths and higher potentials of our human experience begin to make sense again.


*This breakthrough in awareness of Jesus as a symbol of God was the insight metaphorically represented in the Resurrection. The truth of what he said, how he lived, and what he was did not end on his cross but continues in those with the same courage to be authentically and compassionately human.

 

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Light and Shadow

Robinson: “Faced with the shadow, the unacceptable, [the response of the West] has been to reject and exclude it. The dark has been detached from the image of God or the Christ and projected on to a Devil or Antichrist viewed as the embodiment of evil per se – though at the beginning of the process, as in the book of Job, it was not so: Satan was among the agents of God and seen as doing his work, the hand of the Almighty, albeit his left hand.

“This process comes to its climax in Zoroastrianism, post-exilic Judaism, Islam, and not least in Christianity, where the Devil came to occupy a uniquely powerful, even obsessive, position. The absolutizing of evil in a totally malignant Being has been the dark side of the absolutizing of the good in ethical monotheism. Evil is utterly banished and excluded from God.”

An inability to hold a creative opposition together results in dualism, where the internal tension strains through a bi-polar phase and finally breaks apart into a split reality of warring opposites. With one eye – let’s say the right (and all that it means to “be right”) – we see what is good, orthodox and acceptable. With the other – the left (Latin sinister, French gauche) – we see what is evil, deviant and unacceptable.

Conventional theism regards this dualism as based in metaphysical realities. On the right (correct) side is a company comprised of gods, angels, saviors, saints, and buttoned-up true believers; on the left (errant) side are devils, demons, fiends, sinners, and pants-down heretics. These opposites can have no part in each other, and in the end one or the other must win.

But why stop there? Historically on the “right” side are also males, the logical mind, and the self-righteous ego. And on the “wrong” side are females, the emotional body, and the sex-obsessed id. In other words, while the out-lying branches present a view where one side is held separate and apart from the other, following this tree of metaphors back to the trunk reveals each as a part of the same reality.

Post-theism takes a step back from metaphysical realism and tries not to get caught up in the passionate testimonials that claim to have encountered good or evil in its pure form. I’m suspicious that such a metaphysical dualism – a division in the very nature of reality itself – is actually rooted in a more home-grown dualism within ourselves.

If I can’t accept a basic part of what I am – and in the West it has tended to be my impulsive, carnal, pleasure-seeking animal nature – then it (Freud’s Id) must be split off, pushed down, depersonalized and disowned. This is the part of me that had to be managed, disciplined and domesticated in the early years of my socialization, as this animal nature was being converted into a polite and well-behaved member of my tribe.

It wasn’t socially acceptable to crouch down and relieve myself in public. I had to “hold it” and go find a restroom. In some circles it’s not socially acceptable for girls to play rough or for boys to dance. Whatever we needed to do to ensure the protection, provision and approval of our “higher powers” – even if it meant casting off some natural passions and talents, we did it.

But if a part of what I am has been shushed, punished and excluded long enough, it’s going to show up somewhere. Robinson’s point is that it shows up in our metaphysics, in our mythology, in our religion, and in our ethics. It emerges from under ground either as out-and-out deviance and rebellion, or else in the prejudice and bigotry of our moral convictions.

The mythological god is where this psychosomatic dualism gets projected and sanctified. If god hates sinners and deplores what is evil, then why should we be any different, right? If god is constrained by some reluctant obligation to condemn unbelievers – even though he supposedly loves all of us unconditionally, mind you – then why should I forgive my enemy? How can I, if even god can’t?

It seems to me that there is a whole semester of Jesus’ teachings, particularly on the topic of forgiveness and love for the enemy, that has been pushed out of the curriculum of orthodox Christianity. This “first voice” of Jesus will not be heard as long as the dualism of light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong, rules and urges, “us” and “them” persists.

We worship in god what we glorify in ourselves, and we persecute in each other what we can’t accept in ourselves. As more and brighter light shines on the cultured ego, the shadow behind it grows darker and more ominous. A passionate pursuit of righteousness may really be a sublimated fear of our repressed urges. We only appear to be chasing after godliness; in fact, we are running from our own shadow.

This internal strain of the ego trying to break free of the id serves a purpose, so I’m not suggesting that it’s completely neurotic. The social expectations of the tribe need to prevail over the animal impulses of the body if the individual is to take his or her place in polite society. Certainly, the primal energies dedicated to physical survival, sexual reproduction, and pleasure-seeking have to be guided into channels that are conducive to community life.

So the tension and interplay of “good” and “evil” is inherent in our human development. But when this tension becomes intolerable and the whole thing cracks apart into warring opposites (absolute dualism), reality goes apocalyptic. Relationships break up as individuals break down. As this continues, any hope for peace and community, reconciliation and love, health and happiness falls over the edge.

Interestingly enough, buried in our own fairly ancient mythology is an image that offers a way back to wholeness. Lucifer – that captain of devils who keeps whispering to us from behind the hedges of our Victorian garden-morality – is so named because he bears the light we have lost. He’s the part of us that we keep pushing away from ourselves and condemning in each other.

In order to get our light back, we need to face him, not cross ourselves and run away.

 

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The Nature of Reality

If you were the only sentient being in this universe, you probably would never become aware of the discrepancy between your worldview and reality-as-it-is. Of course there would be perceptual mistakes, as when the cool oasis in the distance turns out to be only a mirage. But these would amount to minor illusions. Over time you would carry forward your lessons and make the necessary adjustments.

The term “reality” is used pretty loosely, even today when the discrepancy between our personal worlds and what they are meant to represent is finally acknowledged – at least by some. This acknowledgement is one of the marks of our postmodern mind. Human beings are meaning-makers, and the closed webs of meaning that we create – individually and together as cultures – are the worlds we inhabit.

Even one of my conversation partners for this round uses “reality” in reference to our individual and cultural constructions – as in you have your reality and I have mine. Personally I prefer the term “world” when speaking of these constructs of human language, perspective, and meaning. Especially on the level where such constructs serve as more global habitats of meaning.

This saves “reality” as the way things really are, apart from and beyond our constructs. You have your world, I have mine; but there’s still something outside our boxes, so to speak. Besides being fantasies conjured out of the creative nothingness of our imaginations, at least part of our world is meant as a representation of the way things really are. Even if we’re wildly off base – which is probably the case at least some of the time – there remains the present mystery of reality.

Just because we (mis)take our constructions or representations for the way things really are doesn’t mean we should be content to persist in that delusion. If I am fully convinced that the end of history will be crashing in at any moment, this is not my reality. Even as I take it with all seriousness, sell my possessions and abandon civilization for refuge in the desert, reality is what it is. There have been countless examples where delusional prophets were forced to apologize to their followers and review their calculations the following day.

So we live inside worlds of our own making. These worlds may be fairly reliable representations of the way things really are, but they also serve as shelters against the unknown. A happy and productive life would likely be impossible if we had to figure out everything from scratch upon waking each morning. Meaning provides a sense of security.

But this relationship between meaning and security isn’t exactly reciprocal, in that more security doesn’t always support a more meaningful life. In fact, as we lock ourselves up inside our personal and cultural worlds, grateful for what is familiar, stable and certain, the air in there quickly goes stale. Because meaning seems to be a function of relevance, reference and transcendence, it is diminished to the degree that our awareness shrinks to the dimensions of our mental boxes. Smaller boxes feel more secure, but they are less meaningful.

The authors I will be reading and reflecting on are definitely “outside the box,” as we say.

DeMello

Anthony De Mello (Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, 1990) was a Jesuit priest whose life and writings were a lively dialogue with Oriental spirituality. Based on retreat talks he gave on mindfulness, freedom and happiness, this book takes a humorous yet revolutionary tour through what it means to be truly aware.

 

Anderson

 

Walter Truett Anderson (Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, 1990) wrote one of the definitive popular guides to postmodernism. In that book, he helps us become more self-consciously aware of our role as creators of the worlds we inhabit. The relationship of our brain to language, and of the constructs of language to the perennial question of truth are considered.

Robinson

 

John A.T. Robinson (Truth is Two-Eyed, 1979) was the Dean  of Trinity College in Cambridge, England. He challenged current thought on matters of theology, especially the way Christian orthodoxy has made god into an article of doctrine and forgotten God as spiritual Presence. The “two eyes” in Robinson’s title represent Oriental and Western approaches to truth.

 

I can already imagine a conversation among these three, where De Mello investigates the inner-psychological groundwork of awareness, Anderson interrogates the constructions of reality that spring up from there, and Robinson explores how very different world-constructions can challenge and enrich each other in healthy dialogue.

Throughout my reading and reflections on passages from these authors, I want to carry forward from my previous Conversations the insight that reality is a present mystery. However we frame it up, whatever filters we use to make it useful to our needs, the nature of reality is such that it is both within us as the ground of our being and beyond us as the universe to which we belong.

You are invited to join the conversation as well. Read along with me and share your insights by leaving comments along the way.

 

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Getting Back to Here and Now

Schleiermacher: “The goal and character of the religious life is not the immortality desired and believed in by many. It is not the immortality that is outside of time, behind it, or rather after it, and which still is in time. It is the immortality which we can now have in this temporal life; it is the problem in the solution of which we are forever to be engaged. In the midst of finitude to be one with the Infinite and in every moment to be eternal is the immortality of religion.”

I’ve already mentioned how Schleiermacher criticized two of the foundational doctrines of Christian orthodoxy – the providence of god and the immortality of the soul. Later on, Nietzsche would pick up this criticism with new vigor. Together they stand in a philosophical time-stream that has come to be called by several names – perspectivism, constructivism, nonrealism – and generally postmodernism.

Whereas the modern West had rested on the confidence of a fixed objective world (out there), postmodernism has realized how much of what we assume as out there is really our own projection. The modern mind had also looked “up” to a god who actually existed in a supernatural space (heaven) above and outside the world, while the postmodern mind rejects metaphysical realism. And if modern religion had regarded the individual soul as indestructible and immortal, postmodernism (if it has a place for soul at all) defines it merely as our “inner life” where individual existence emerges from and dissolves into the present mystery of reality.

So Schleiermacher was an early postmodernist, living at a time when the modern paradigm was losing energy and falling apart. His challenge wasn’t merely to reinterpret traditional religion for a new (nontraditional) audience, but rather to reconnect Christianity to its spiritual grounding. For him, this grounding is subjective and experiential – in the human experience of reality – and not objective or external to us. In his magnum opus The Christian Faith, he defined faith as “the feeling of absolute dependence” on the living presence of God.

In Christian orthodoxy the doctrine of providence refers to god’s control over world events and his predetermined purpose for the future. I shifted to a lower-case “g” to indicate that we’re talking about the god of Christian mythology, the main protagonist of the Bible who created the universe, chose a favorite nation, handed down a law code, intervened on historical events, raised Jesus from the grave, and now governs all things from a high point outside human affairs.

For Schleiermacher – and others like me – providence has to do with present existence and not future destination. In each moment, I am grounded in a reality that is creative, supportive and interdependent. To the degree that I can release my ego need for security and personal control, my life begins to relax into being. This heart-beat, this breath, this life, this passing moment are simply “provided” to me. I don’t need to grip down and worry them into effect. Indeed, my nervous effort to control them actually interferes and puts them in jeopardy.

Just as we can distinguish between the mythological god and the living presence of God, the soul can be defined as the part of me that lives forever (immortality in the temporal sense) or as that deep place in my life where I am grounded in the divine presence. This is where the distinction between “everlasting” and “eternal” becomes especially important. Immortality is about now, not later. It is about going deeper into reality (and becoming more real), not farther ahead in time; it’s authentic life, not life without end.

Of course, this process of redefining religious terms – or rather recovering their original meaning as metaphors of religious experience – is still enmeshed in words and thoughts about the mystery. The modern commitment to building systems and constructing meaning can get caught in the web of its own making. A postmodern spirituality simply regards all of this as secondary reflection on the primary process of experience itself.

We need to get back to experience, which might involve back-tracking through this construction site to the original inspiration that got it all going in the first place. This is Schleiermacher’s agenda as a late-modern clergyman and Christian theologian. But we might also just skip the project of rehabilitating doctrines and go directly to experience itself. Once there – a place we always are and only leave in our minds – we can begin to feel our absolute dependence on the greater reality beneath us (ground) and all around us (universe).

It’s not about being right, but being real. Aware of my relative position in the grandeur of it all, and cultivating my own internal access point to the present mystery of reality, I no longer feel the need to cling regretfully to the past or wait anxiously for the future. This is where I Am.

Where are you?

 

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