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Truth In Christian Mythology

One of the challenges in clarifying a post-theistic spirituality has to do with the fact that its principal concern – what I name the present mystery of reality – is impossible to define. While it is always and only right here, right now, any attempt to put a name and definition around it only manages to conceal the mystery under a veil of meaning.

Our need for certainty might be temporarily satisfied, but in the meantime the curtain of mental tapestry has separated us from what’s really real.

If we could acknowledge that this is what we’re doing, these veils would stand a better chance of parting before the mystery and facilitating a fresh encounter of our mind with reality. But while constructivism makes such an acknowledgment central to its method, orthodoxy, in every cultural domain and not only religion, cannot admit this either to its constituencies of believers or even to itself.

Our mind has a tendency to fall in love with its constructions, to get lost in its own designs. Meaning is something we can control, since it is, after all, our peculiar invention. Mystery – not even “on the other hand” since this puts it on the same axis as meaning – requires an open mind, not one boxed inside its own conclusions.

Our best constructs don’t amount to final answers but better – deeper, larger, and farther reaching – questions.

With the rise of science, the truth of our constructions of meaning (called theories) has become more strongly associated with how accurate they are as descriptions, explanations, and predictions of what’s going on around us – that is, in the factual realm external to our mind. (Even the scientific understanding of our body posits it as something physical, objective, and separate from the observing, analytical mind.)

In the meantime and as a consequence of this growing fascination with objectification, measurement, and control, we have gradually lost our taste and talent for a very different kind of narrative construction. One that doesn’t look out on a supposedly objective reality but rather contemplates the grounding mystery of existence itself.

Myths have been around far longer than theories, and one of the early mistakes of science was to assume that these ancient stories were just ignorant efforts at explaining a reality outside the mind.

Deities and demons, fantastical realms, heroic quests, and miraculous events – the familiar stuff of myths: such were not validated under scientific scrutiny and had to be rejected on our advance to enlightenment. Religion itself fell into amnesia, relinquishing its role as storyteller and settling into the defense of a supernatural realm above the natural realm, or (trying to seem more scientific) a metaphysical realm behind the physics of science.

Otherwise, religion agreed to keep its focus on morality and the life to come.

The theism-atheism debate is relevant here and only here, where the factual (i.e., supernatural, metaphysical) existence of god makes any sense. Theists insist that their stories are literally true and the mythological god is real, while atheists claim they are not, for obvious reasons. Theists profess the necessity of believing in god’s existence as a matter of faith, whereas atheists rightly point out that believing anything without the evidence or logic to support it is intellectually irresponsible.

They are both at a stalemate. We need to move on …

Post-theism provides a way out of this predicament by challenging us to put aside both metaphysics and physics as we reconsider these timeless myths. Their truth is not a matter of factual explanation but mystical revelation – or if you prefer, artistic revelation, precisely in the way a true work of art presents us with an artifact to contemplate and then draws back this veil on a present mystery. This mystery is the here-and-now experience that inspired the artist to begin with.

As revelation, however, it is not a look at someone else’s past experience of the here-and-now but offers a spontaneous insight for the beholder into the deep mystery of This Moment.

To show what I mean, let’s take the central myth of Christianity which has been summarized by orthodoxy in the doctrines of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But whereas Christian orthodoxy has attached these exclusively to the historical figure of Jesus, that is to say, to a person in the past, we will regard him instead as an archetypal figure, as an instance of what Joseph Campbell named The Hero.As Campbell demonstrated, this Hero has ‘a thousand faces’ reflecting the divers cultures and epochs where his (and her) stories are told – stories that can be interpreted and understood archetypally as about ourselves.

The Hero, then, is our ego, or the self-conscious center of personal identity that each of us is compelled to become. My diagram illustrates this journey of identity with an arching arrow representing the linear path of our individual lifespan. Personal identity is not something we’re born with, and its character cannot simply be reduced to our genes and animal temperament.

Quite otherwise, identity must be constructed, and its construction is a profoundly social project involving our parents and other taller powers, along with siblings and peers who make up our cohort through time.

Just as the Hero’s destiny is to serve as an agent of cultural aspirations (a struggle against fate), progress (a counter to the stabilizing force of tradition), and creativity (as an instigator of new possibilities), so does his or her path chart the trend-line and opportunities associated with our higher evolution as a species.

Briefly in what follows I will translate the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as representing three primary stages in the Hero’s Journey each of us is on.

What I call the grounding mystery of reality is all that has transpired to bring forth our existence as human beings. This refers not only to the causal sequence of events leading up to us, but each distinct manifestation of the universe making up our present nature as physical, organic, sentient, and self-conscious individuals.

From our position of ego consciousness we look ‘down’ into the ground of what we essentially are.

As mentioned earlier, it is our socially constructed center of separate identity (ego) that arcs in its journey out, away, and eventually back to the grounding mystery. Because personal identity is socially constructed and independent of genetic inheritance, the start of its journey is represented in the myths as something of a vertical drop from another realm. The Hero may simply show up, but frequently in myths its advent comes about by way of a virgin birth.

Staying with this natal imagery, our best description would be to say that ego is spontaneously conceived (or ‘wakes up’) in the womb of the body.

The longer process of ego formation involves the attachments, agreements, and assignments that conspire to identify us as somebody special and separate from the rest. Our tribe provides us (or so we can hope) with models of maturity, responsibility, and virtue, in the taller powers of adults who watch over us; but also in the construct of a personal deity who exemplifies the perfection of virtue.

In my diagram I have colored the construct of god with a gradient ranging from purple (representing the grounding mystery) to orange (representing ego consciousness), in order to make the point that god is not merely another being, but the personified ground of being as well as the exalted ideal of our own waking nature.

But at the very apex of ego’s formation, just as we come to ourselves as special and separate from the rest, another realization dawns: that we are separate and alone. In the heroic achievement of our unique individuality we also must somehow accept (or otherwise resign to) the full burden of our existence as solitary and mortal beings.

In the Christian myth this is represented by Jesus on the cross when he cries out, “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?!” (Mark 15:34)

As a narrative mechanism, the cross thrusts our Hero away from the earth but not quite into heaven either, where he hangs in a grey void of isolation, exposure, and abandonment. This is the crucial (‘cross-shaped’ or ‘cross-over’) point that can lead either to utter despair, a desperate craving for security and assurance, or to the breakthrough of genuine awakening.

Which way it goes will depend on our ability to sustain this shock of loneliness and look not away but through it to a transpersonal view of life.

It’s not a coincidence that Jesus’ followers recognized his cross as central to his vision of the liberated life. It was a visual depiction of his core message (gospel) concerning the necessity of dying to one’s separate and special self, whether that specialness is based in a felt sense of pride and superiority, or in shame and inferiority. Both, in fact, can equally fixate ego on itself and keep us from authentic life.

Only by getting over ourselves can we enter into conscious communion with others and with the greater reality beyond us.

Entering into the authentic life of a transpersonal existence brings us to the third stage of our Hero’s journey: resurrection. This isn’t a recovery of our former life but an elevation of consciousness to the liberated life, to what I also call our creative authority as individuals in community. In the Christian myth this higher state of the liberated life is represented in the symbol of an empty tomb, which plays opposite to the virgin womb as the locus of our Hero’s ‘second birth’, set free from the constraints of insecurity, ambition … and belief.

From a post-theistic perspective, one gift of the liberated life is a grace to live in full acceptance of our own mortality, of the passing nature of things, and of the deep abyss in the face of which our most cherished veils of meaning dissolve away.

 

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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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