Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Christ Narrative As Metaphor

The more you can come to see everyone as yourself, the more you will be able to use everything around you to learn about who you are, and the more you will be able to transform yourself and be an ocassion for everyone else's transformation. We are all sentient beings, and we are all capable of experiencing one another's salvation.
--Michael Wenger

As with some of my other short impersonal essays dealing with interfaith issues, this essay highlights a longstanding difference in perspective regarding religion in the West. Those familiar with Unitarian Universalism and other similar movements (which are typically non-mainstream within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) know that I am not claiming originating this discussion. I'm just continuing it. Moreover, in this specific case, I am not suggesting that my reading is the absolute "right" or "true" way to understand the material discussed.

(Note on the title: I think some folks may misunderstand metaphor to mean "made-up" and therefore irrelevant, but metaphors are intended to point to something, and that something need not be "phoney". )


In contemplative mysticism, and as inferred from sacred traditions such as Buddhism, enlightenment is viewed as awakening to profound awareness. Enlightenment is also viewed as being intimately connected to compassion, so that practicing compassion is viewed as a tool for getting closer to an understanding of enlightenment as well as the result of becoming enlightened. It is not uncommon to hear those who approach enlightenment to emphasize the quality of Being. Not being something, not being somewhere, not being sometime, just Being. In the Old Testament there is a depiction of God talking about who God is, and it is translated in English-language Bibles as "I Am". Not I am me and you are you, not I am here, not I am followed or preceeded by anything. Just "I Am". In Taoism it is said that the Tao simply is--it cannot be localized or described or given attributes. Similar accounts of a unifying ineffable realization can be found in many additional places, but it isn't limited to theistic religions or nontheistic religions. For example, similar concepts were found in Greek philosophy.

Part of the implication is even though we percieve existence in terms of time and space that fundamentally they would all just be manifestations of Being. This is not an argument for a Creator and a Creation, though some may have an inclination towards such a dichotomy. But in Being there is no dichotomy, at least not in absolute or eternal terms. Differences exist in a conventional sense, where forms arise and disappear. They are ephemeral. Nor is such a belief founded in what many may think of as blind faith, as it is supposed to be possible, with diligent practice, to see this truth of the fundamental nature of things for ourselves. No supernatural whooziwhatsis or alternate reality mind-bending Matrix-like revelations. Just realizing what is in a very basic but powerful way.

Considering how widespread this idea is, even though it often gets mired and distorted by cultural baggage, was it ever suggested in Christianity? I propose that it is Christianity, or at least the Christ narrative. This isn't an attempt to convince anyone of anything, just my own take on an old and familiar story in my own culture.

To make put this exercise in a manageable size, I will be discussing five elements of the Christ narrative: his ministry of compassion, his temptation by Satan, his night of doubt and resolve in the Garden of Gethsemane, his crucifixion, and his resurrecton.

First, the ministry of compassion. The overwhelming account of how Jesus spent time in his ministry involved acts of compassion, without a doubt. And often it was the beggers, lepers, prostitutes, and others who were most negelected or abused by their fellow human beings to whom Jesus ministered. From the Sermon on the Mount to his betrayal, forgiveness, compassion, and more compassion. One image really stands out, as described in Matthew 25:

31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

The meaning of the passage for me is simple. Those who practice compassion will find their way to a place beyond their own egotistical needs and embrace a life of contentment and joy (kingdom of heaven). Those who do not will fall into a self-absorbed cycle of despair and fear from which they cannot escape (Hell).

Then we come to to the temptation by Satan. When people progress deeply into a contemplative practice to observe their contructed ego of habits and assumptions, that ego begins to lose its grip on shaping how we see the world. The advice by more experienced practioners is to expect that part of the mind to try to make itself more relevant. In fact this is quite the difficult struggle, to let go of deeply ingrained patterns of thinking. This is represented in the Christ narrative by Satan. For complete context, God is not "someone" or Jehova in the sky or some Big Mind out there somewhere, but again represents the notion of Being. Hence Jesus rejecting the temptations of Satan to follow the will of God can be seen as representing letting go of delusion, anger, and attachment to the constructed ego that we come to identify as the "true" us.

Still, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks for the burden of his upcoming brutal death to be taken from him. Now, in the literal intepretation, that is a no brainer. Who wants to be beaten, scourged, nailed to a hunk of wood, and left to suffocate? How does it fit the model of enlightenment? Consider again the idea of truly letting go of the constructed ego you have come to consider as an "essential" you. It's not easy! Moreover, enlightenment suggests that while on an ephemeral relative level I am me and you are you, we are really both just manifestations of Being. And so is everything (and nothing) else. It's one thing to imagine you have a fundamental connection to a sunset or a rainbow or a butterfly. It's nice to be the rainbow. But it's not nice to be the landfill. It's not nice to be fundamentally connected to rapists, to murderers, to peverts, to worst of humanity as well as the best. Yet Being cannot discriminate. That's where the idea of Jesus bearing the sins of the world comes into play. By accepting your true nature as a manifestation of Being you accept the whole thing. You have compassion for the whole thing. That's quite the ordeal. Die to what you think you know about yourself and embrace the whole world for better or worse.

At last we come to resurrection. In contemplative traditions such as Buddhism, it is thought that by facing the reality of a thing we can surpass our fear of it and the limitations such fear imposes on our lives. By living a life of compassion, moving beyond delusions, facing the reality of death, and embracing Being, Jesus is transformed. The Jesus we saw working his ministry in the Gospel in Buddhist terms be akin to a Bodhisattva, a saint who is very close to enlightenment but who puts it off to help free others from their suffering by setting them on the path to liberation as well. (For the sake of clarity, I should add that, based on my understanding of Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva doesn't technically decide "Eh, I'll put off Enlightenment to help others." The Bodhisattva realizes that to save himself implies saving everyone else. In a way, the vow that the Bodhisattva makes to save all sentient beings is a reflection of the fact that he or she is actually enlightened! In fact, there is actually no one to save on the absolute level, only innumerable conventional forms which are deluded.)The Jesus we see after his resurrection is a Buddha. He has attained full and perfect enlightenment, and has completely perceived his unity with God, with the essential nature of Being.

In summary, I see the value of myth and religious narrative in the deeper truth it expresses about the human condition. Hence for me Jesus symbolizes the hope of all sentient beings to die to their constructed ego and in doing so find a limitless spring of compassion for all people. Hence, we are tempted by our own doubts and weaknesses (Satan), we all have to face our own Garden of Gethsemane where we cling to our attachments and fears as we confront our own sense of mortality, but in facing death (Crucifixion) we actually conquer it (Resurrection).

Kind of puts a new spin on things, doesn't it?

Romans 11

3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
4 therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death; that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:
6 knowing this, that our old man in crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
7 For he that is dead is freed from sin.
8 Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him;
9 knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.

Galatians 2

20 I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.

What are you able to use to learn about who you are?

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