Saturday, June 13, 2009

Oh, They've Encased Jesus in Carbonite

[Yes, this post is long by blog standards and in a world of twittering and texting, but I've examined the matter and breaking this up into smaller posts really screws up its flow and cohesion, so suck it up and wade in... :o) ]

People have long used images like keeping God in a little wooden box, so I thought I would use an image more familiar to my generation. Jesus is alive, and in perfect hibernation. Frozen forever in a familiar form, easily pictured and understood. Come and kneel - pray before the Carbonite Jesus. He always looks the same, an image inert in time and space - oh how we love thee, Carbonite Jesus.

For those not familiar with my reference, Jesus was a first century Rabbi in Palestine who was executed for sedition. A holy man and reported miracle worker, many of his followers would claim he was/is the son of God. The other reference is to a process by which Darth Vader planned to immobilize his son, Luke Skywalker, for transport his master Emperor Palpatine in the film The Empire Strikes Back.

What is known about the teachings of Jesus emphasize the Hebrew prophetic tradition of emphasizing that obedience to God is to love God and to love others, and that the other Jewish laws must be understood in this context. Hence Jesus took up a call similar to the prophets recorded in the "Old" Testament to be humble and to identify with and serve the weak and the powerless. After his death his followers reported he had been resurrected (not resuscitated, merely bringing his old body back to life). Further, many of his followers claimed he had ascended to Heaven.
The early Christian community argued over whether he was a man who had become a god or who had achieved union with God and therefore divinity, or whether he was just God pretending to be a human in a flesh suit. Later his followers would reject both ideas, suggesting he was fully human and fully divine as an aspect of the Trinity. The specific details were left as a mystery of faith. Still others argued whether he arose in his old body, a new body, a body of matter, a body of spirit, or something else. The early community simply said he was resurrected and left an empty tomb. The specific details of his bodily resurrection were left as a mystery of faith.

Many of his followers saw his death and resurrection as an indication of God's solidarity with humanity, an opportunity to participate in divinity as fellow children of God. Trusting in the insights offered by the Gospels and following the example of Jesus were seen as a means of salvation, of transcending a limited life characterized by alienation from an appreciation of the intimate presence and unyielding love of God. Early on, following Jesus was often to defy tradition and what was comfortable and conventional, to be liberated in a way that even death could not taint or corrupt. Such joy and freedom saw Christianity spread and eventually become a state religion, and after this marriage of tradition and politics it became a world religion.

Throughout the centuries as Western history marched on, Christianity became the primary religion of Europe, subject to the influences of politics, bureaucracy, tribalism, racism, regionalism, and eventually nationalism. As the currency of power and control it attracted both noble and ignoble leaders and challengers. Councils were held to formalize and standardize the religion, schisms formed, reformations erupted, and in the background of war and peace and justice and injustice was the crucifix, the cross, and the statues and paintings of Christ and his family and followers. Like all religions and human institutions, the hopes and fears of hundreds of generations became woven into the theologies and practices of those receiving the tradition.

But what ever became of Jesus?

I don't think that provincialism or tribalism is a great way to assess the universal validity of something, so after I left conservative fundamentalist Protestantism and went in and out of anti-spiritual/anti-religious atheism, I got to know a lot more about other world religions as well as some indigenous/Earth-based traditions. I studied Buddhism broadly and centered my specific focus on East Asian (especially Japanese) forms of Mahayana Buddhism, though I had and keep a soft spot for the incredible writings and teachings of figures like the 14th Dalai Lama. And like the hundreds, possibly thousands of others in this kind of situation, having matured a bit about the nature and importance of religion and spirituality, and how it is (in)appropriately expressed in various ways, I naturally got interested in interfaith efforts and insights. This led me to find figures and ideas in historical and contemporary Christianity I hadn't been aware of before, especially the contemplative and mystical dimensions and the broader view of the value of the Gospels and the liturgies of the more sacramental forms of Christianity and the power of practicing forms of devotion.

These authors* - Br. Wayne Teasdale, Fr. Thomas Merton, Fr. Thomas Keating, Br. David Steindl-Rast, and those like them were/are not trying to rewrite Catholicism or Christianity, but rather express the vision of Church and Christ and God that they had received from the Church and presumably from their devotion to Jesus. In addition I benefited from reading about the encounters and dialogues between accomplished Buddhist teachers and their Christian counterparts, as well from as those who had journeyed from one tradition to the other (and sometimes back again). The result may strike some as trying to recast Jesus and his ministry or his relevance to their theological views on life and death. That is not my intent.

Instead, the question that starts to take shape has to do with the essentials or fundamentals of Christianity. Obviously, the Orthodox, Roman Catholics and their primary offshoots can point to their catechism or the set of creeds to which they adhere, and the Fundamentalists were so named because of the pamphlet their ideological forebearers produced outlining what they viewed as the fundamentals of proper Christianity. I appreciate the importance of trying to have standards about important teachings so that they can be faithfully passed on and properly received from generation to generation, and I have no wish here to denigrate such efforts. Obviously, they were useful in guiding the spiritual development of past saints and visionaries often lauded by those who favor the mystic/contemplative dimensions of the Gospel like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, etc, as well as those contemporary Christian authors mentioned before.

But that only begs the question - are such traditions meant to guide and influence spiritual growth or to curtail it and box it in? How much latitude is there in interpretation and what is the value of practical personal experience? These questions have stirred controversy and dissent note only throughout the history of Christianity but also throughout the history of every major world religion. And is the goal of a religion merely to perpetuate itself intact from age to age or is it to remind us of the transformative insights and experiences of its founder(s) so that others may be guided and inspired in their own spiritual journey? I take the latter view.

Again, the earliest and most consistently enduring valued aspects of the Gospels (as far as I can tell) include the belief that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is an indication of God's solidarity with humanity and an opportunity to participate in his divinity as fellow children of God. To know God not as a distant, alien ruler or tyrant but as Abba - our Father. That trusting in the insights offered by the Gospels and following the example of Jesus are a means of salvation, of transcending a limited life characterized by alienation from an appreciation of the intimate presence and unyielding love of God. That following Jesus often means to defy convention and tradition in order to be liberated in a way that even death could not taint or corrupt.

This is what my intellect, my heart, and my conscience tell me is the most relevant and essential aspects of the Gospels and the Christian tradition. Everything else either points back to these basic beliefs or attempts to explain, rationalize, or justify them. Some of these additional efforts are useful for many, some are useful for a few. Some are logical and consistent with the values expressed in the basic beliefs mentioned above, others or inconsistent or tangential, either because they are anachronisms, culturally inappropriate, or because they came from a human need to control and exclude along tribal, regional, racial, economic, ethnic, or political lines.

Both Jesus and his apostles chose different ways of speaking to the people's understanding, to bridge the definitions/perception of divinity and humanity they work with. In Buddhism this is known as skillful or expedient means - sharing an essential truth in a way that is suitable to the audience. There were many stories that kings and rulers used to justify their legitimacy. Many of the ways of telling Christ's story inverted these standard tropes - for example being born in a manger. In other cases well-understood symbols were crossed or exaggerated to try to make a particular point to the audience. This was also true of the stories told after Christ's death.

Take substitutionary atonement. It works up to a point as a metaphor, but if it doesn't get you to the bigger picture, it leads to the strongest forms of Calvinism, of extreme judgmentalism and exlucisivism. The way I understand that particular theological model is that we are all already embraced by God but we cannot see it or accept it. It is our duality of thinking, of God and not-God, of exaggerating the objective reality of good and evil, that keeps us from accepting this truth and resting in God. This way of thinking, of a cosmic struggle, of us and them, is clearly expressed in the most concrete of terms in the Bible as the view of God alternates between a jealous and insecure sky-deity and an all-embracing Source of all that is becoming.

But that doesn't mean we are just supposed to accept that view without further thought or reflection, as the flat-thinking folks would have us believe. I believe it does however, when combined with what Christ taught, ask us to follow through. Christ had to die because we are the ones who see a distance between ourselves and God, because we give our faith to such distinctions. We are the source of alienation, and we don't know how to truly love ourselves and each other, to forgive ourselves and each other, to heal and allow ourselves to be healed. It isn't God's sense of justice that must be satisfied - it isn't God's sense of isolation and intrinsic autonomy that has caused the perception of a rift between ourselves and God (that is, it isn't God's sin) - it isn't God who ate from the fruit of the tree and divided the world into good and evil -it is our own doing. That is a fuller picture of how to appreciate substitutionary atonement in my humble opinion. In our sin we don't just act bad, we fail to achieve our full goodness - our full potential.

So what does all of this suggest about what happened to Jesus? From a panentheistic point of view, everything is Divine. A wave is made of water, but it isn't the entire ocean. If you get rid of all of the waves, eventually there is no more ocean, so to get to know the ocean, become familiar with the waves. The ocean itself is too vast to comprehend in an intellectual sense, but we can still go float in it and experience it directly (which is especially meaningful when we realize we are part of the ocean). The other half, that we can know the ocean by knowing a wave, is important to your question. It is reflected in the Jewish teaching that Jesus taught was supreme - that to know and love God is to know and love others. The Gospels paint a picture of someone who embraces and embodies this Wisdom and lives the teaching every day, every moment, including his willingness to give up his life.

Jesus reminds us we are not lost and dies to make sure we know we are found - that any possible reason we might cling to that we think would keep us from God is no longer an obstacle. Details about his divinity and his resurrection are generally considered mysteries of the faith. Points where we can never receive a complete or satisfactory answer and which are therefore left as a matter of faith. Panentheism, for example, is just as good an analogy as any but like all such systems it is ultimately incomplete and just a useful guide marker on the spiritual journey. Yet we also have the ascension. In this Jesus returns to God/goes to Heaven. To the heart of Creation, which is constantly unfolding. To the Ground of Being and the Source of Becoming. In other traditions this might be referred to as the non dual coexistence of Shunyata and the Pure Land, the Dharmakaya, the Tao.

In this sense, historically, as the stories of the resurrection and ascension spread and became incorporated into The Way (which would later become better known as Christianity), and symbolically, Jesus in the Christian tradition comes to be understood in cosmic terms, as the face and substance of the phenomenological aspect of reality (or of form, to use the Buddhist equivalent). Hence, as folks such as Fr. Keating like to describe it (adding in Mystic/Buddhist subtitles), the Father (Ground of Being/Source of Becoming) empties himself into the Son (the phenomenological or historical dimensions of existence), and the Son empties himself into the Father. Or as the Heart Surtra frames it, form is no other than emptiness**, emptiness no other than form - form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. They are not really two, but one. Of course in Christian tradition there is a trinity that is one, not a duality. In such a scenario the third part of the trinity is in found in the act of transformation itself - that which helps to define the other two elements and which demonstrates they are simply different aspects of the same. Hence it is supposedly what we "receive" when we realize our own connection to God through the person of Jesus.

There are loads of implications for what it means to have the symbol of love and peace and God's solidarity with Creation being at the heart of Creation as it is constantly formed and reformed. Many of have been pondered ceaselessly, and others likely have yet to be realized. But among them is the denial that "the world", as used in a pejorative sense in the Christian tradition, simply means the physical world, because Christ is at the heart of it. (Again, I think it is the false world we make for ourselves in our delusion, samsara; I also have a thought on what this could mean for sacraments like the Eucharist.) It would also entail a respect for all things inspiring peace and love, since these also must come from Christ. Hence Christ can be heard when a Buddhist chants Nam(u) Myoho Renge Kyo, or Nam(u) Amitofo/Amida, or Om Mane Padme Hung, and in that moment the Buddhist cultivates a respect for all living things or an awareness of his own connection to a larger reality filled with wisdom and compassion. Hence Christ can be seen when a professed atheist works to teach poor children to read out of respect and love for humanity.

But too often, however we have heard of Christ, either from a traditional or non-traditional perspective, as a King, as a Redeemer, or even as a dashboard Buddy, we tend to lock him into a fixed and familiar form. To follow him is often reduced to following a rigid prescription of activities using the right materials and affirming the right beliefs without question, and to reject him is to reject this setup. To grow our understanding of God and Jesus by going beyond the Bible and the cross or whatever we have attached to our fixed image of Jesus is unthinkable, even when this doesn't mean rejecting the Bible or the cross, even when this enhances and builds on our understanding of the Bible and the cross. Clark Strand suggests in his book (How to Believe in God) that often such folks are half-believers, that is, they aren't secure enough or deep enough into the insights of their own faith to be able to appreciate other perspectives. They limit God and they limit Jesus to working only within the familiar and traditional confines of the religion humans created to honor and follow Jesus, which in a way is tragically ironic.
This isn't an insult towards the Church, but an observation of successes and failures of the institutions of the Church (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, etc) in creating and correcting such phobia of anything that doesn't officially "look" or "sound" properly "Christian".

[Anecdote: I recently observed a Protestant Fundamentalist reacting with horror to a Catholic suggesting that those who don't truly know Christ and his saving grace can still realize salvation because the truth, if not overt Christianity, is written in their hearts. The Fundamentalist was, at least in his typed reply, almost apoplectic. I would, theoretically at least for the sake of argument, go a little further (given this premise and assuming a less limited view of Jesus) and suggest that even ex-Christians, who knew all the theology and felt joy and power in their lives, who believed all the creeds etc, may not have fully known or understood, in a personal way, what Jesus really represents and who he is. This is not a lame attempt to say they were never really Christians, etc, but rather to suggest that any Jesus or God we can truly and completely dump in our heart of hearts and live without doesn't seem like it would be the complete and full legit article, does it? And the ones who go to Hell are supposedly the ones how are truly aware of Christ and the fullness of his grace and mercy and reject him anyway. This in turn to me implies again the universalist view of Christ. Rather than suggesting that these people are going to Hell because they don't believe in Jesus, we can argue they are not because they haven't actually rejected Jesus. That the point of such a teaching would actually seem to be that no one can possibly reject the actual full and genuine experience of the grace of God, whatever package it comes in (or conversely we could say that so long as we do reject such grace the state we live in would be Hell). And that the package doesn't have to come stamped with a little Cross and a Bible verse. I didn't mention these potential extrapolation of their debate though as I was afraid the one fellow might blow a gasket!]

Each of us has the temptation to take what we think about some revelation we perceive as being from God, in this case the life, example, and status of Jesus, and turn it into an idol. Something convenient. Something comfortable. Something we think we can control. Each of us at some point or another has given into this urge, even if we never used the language of religion or spirituality. And for those whose understanding of God is centered in the person of Jesus, we have all taken our turn at freezing him in carbonite. But Christ's message above all was about liberation, whether couched in terms of salvation or redemption, and perhaps one of the most difficult things one can do if one is inspired by and wants to follow Jesus is to let go of the confining certainty of a few scraps of dogma and scripture for the entire package of tradition AND the living Christ.

It's always best to use practical concrete examples, and great case in point can be found in this recent story about the concern over an Episcopal priest who practices Zen, in which people focus on form and emptiness and generate compassion for all living things...

Unofficial tallies show that an Episcopal priest who practices Zen Buddhist meditation and holds controversial theological views will not likely be consecrated as bishop of the Diocese of Northern Michigan.

James Tonkowich, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, however, argued, "The issue is not whether meditation is good, it is what is being meditated on."

"While church leaders may respect other faiths, their vow of Christian ordination has always meant an exclusive commitment to Jesus Christ and the Christian faith."

Responding to criticisms of Thew Forrester's Buddhist meditation, Rustin Kimsey, retired bishop of the Diocese of Eastern Oregon, said, "[W]hen did the way in which we are deepened into the presence of God become a litmus test for being a follower of Jesus Christ?"


Excellent question, Bishop Kimsey, excellent question.

*It should not be assumed that because these or other author's mentioned may have helped inspire or flesh out the theology and Christology presented here that they would actually agree with my views.

**form refers to phenomena, including anything we can perceive with our senses or conceptualize in our minds; emptiness refers to lack of intrinsic or inherent qualities, that is, it refers to the fact that all form is inter-dependent and transient. Emptiness also refers to potential, the potential upon which existence is based. Hence all forms are interconnected through cause and effect by way of emptiness. The upshot is that all things, including all people and every moment, are fleeting and unique, irreplaceable and therefore valuable beyond measure; it also implies a fundamental equality of all people as well.

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  1. As I ponder why I am so reluctant to comment in your blog, I note a distinction that sets apart *this* reluctance from the reluctance I feel with other blogs.

    With this blog, I feel a desire to comment, but an inability to contribute anything worth contributing.

    I smile, I nod, I frequently AOL ("amen" out loud).

    Shall I actually hit submit this time? I think so. I shall see.

    You rightly say that early followers of Christ were known as followers of "The Way." My studies inform me that the empire at the time labeled them as atheists.

    I am slightly puzzled, though, by the lack of dates. Would you please be kind and offer a date for this passage: "The early Christian community rejected both ideas, suggesting he was fully human and fully divine as an aspect of the Trinity...."

    If memory serves, Origen, who predated the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon by over a hundred years, was called on to speak against heterodoxies, including Christologies that did not see Christ as fully human and fully divine.

    Even if memory does not serve regarding Origen, perhaps wikipedia serves regarding the First Council of Nicea. Since sufficient disagreement existed for Constantine to call a council to resolve the matter, it would seem that the "early Christian community" was not at one regarding this issue. :)

    I was re-introduced into Buddhist teachings and practices via Shane Hipps of Trinity Mennonite and Phyllis Tickle.

    I am continuing to grow in appreciation for Christianity (the non-"mainstream institutionalized religion" variety), in part, through your blog.

    Even if that is not what you are intending to share, it is what I am receiving. Thank you for your sharing. :)

  2. Yeah, there is early and early. I should have said that a segment of the early Christian community rejected the extremes in Christology of Jesus becoming God and God just wearing a Jesus-suit. Of course, I've never heard of the whole Christian community as being at one on much, unless we just reject those groups who don't match a preferred orthodoxy. Even if we pulled that point from the list, I think the others sound pretty safe. I a not a Biblical scholar, but creed or no creed those basic ideas seem fairly safe. Of course, I could be wrong, if any theology whizzes are lurking and want to comment.

    The lack of dates comes from the fact that this wasn't a scholarly effort but like most stuff here a sorting out of thoughts and reactions in my head. I could probably ask some of the folks I know online who are into theology and the history of ideas for them, it just didn't occur to me to put them in. So to address the other point, there is no wrong or bad reaction to what I wrote unless it hurts you somehow. :o) Thank you for your kind comments and sharp insights.

  3. Oh nuts, I see what I did. I transposed the beginning of two thoughts/sentences. It has now been corrected to read as follows:

    The early Christian community argued over whether he was a man who had become a god or who had achieved union with God and therefore divinity, or whether he was just God pretending to be a human in a flesh suit. Later his followers would reject both ideas, suggesting he was fully human and fully divine as an aspect of the Trinity.

    No wonder you were confused!!!

  4. Thanks. That does make things much more clear.

  5. I apologize for the error. Thanks for your continued interest :o)

  6. You are fusing together a great many things. They don't all go together. Essentially there is Jesus and there is Christ. These are the same guy and were in the same person, but they typify his two distinct aspects, the historical man vs the doctrine about his role, his job, his nature. It's not clear to me if you are asking for accuracy in knowing about the man, or more clarity in understand the doctrine. Of if you want to do away with the doctrine?

    Show me the historical evidence that suggests that the man is not understood accurately by the chruch?

    As for the atonement there is more than one view. My participatory atonement is a legitimate view that some theologians accept. I didn't just make it up (the solidarity thing).


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