Saturday, November 27, 2010

We know Jesus, and the Buddha, and the rest too well

Or to put it more accurately, in many ways we don't really know them at all.

I have alluded before to something that many theologians have known for a long time, something I didn't come up with on my own, that in many ways Jesus was a radical.  That isn't to say he was a raving ideologue, or some kind of Jewish anarchist.  From the depictions we have of him he favored quiet, peace and rest as well as good times with friends and family.  He also appears to have been very observant, going to the temple, singing the Psalms, and reading from the Torah.  Yet he saw past clinging blindly to the letter of the law and ignoring its spirit, in which he revealed its source and intent: love for God and for neighbor.  No interpretation of religious law that defied this mandate could be genuine and no secular law that ignored it could be just.

Then there were the early churches.  I've heard they initially shunned the iconography of the cross.  It isn't surprising.  The cross in that era was a sign of shame, terror and agony.  It was the visible symbol of what happened to those who defied Rome and its Emperor.  To look at a cross was to look at the power of the largest known empire in the world and its dominion over your life.  To have taken up the cross as their own symbol, the members of the church would have been doing what so much of the Gospels did, inverting familiar signs of power and meaning.  It was an act of defiance.  What you proclaim as death we proclaim as life.  What you intended to cause despair has become a source of hope.  But how can that symbol carry the same impact today?

You can be told what it means, but that isn't the same.  You just won't have the same visceral reaction.  This kind of dulling of religious imagery over historical and cross-cultural distance is not a new discovery.  St. Francis came up with the nativity scene we see at Christmas time to make the story of Christ's birth alive and relevant to his audience.  The Jesuits and others have also retold and reinterpreted important stories from the Bible for the same reason.  Even C.S. Lewis couldn't help but re-frame some aspects of these stores here and there in his series The Chronicles of Narnia (although to define those works strictly in such terms is absurd).

This isn't to suggest that there isn't value in received tradition and the symbols inherited from previous generations, because there is, but we too can fall prey to our overly-familiar interpretations and the strict adherence to its structures at the cost of its spirit.  The Gospels are supposed to be full of mysteries, things which are unexpected and inexplicable by conventional wisdom.  So to have these mysteries tamed and their impact dulled is to miss what they have to say to us.  For the New Testament we only have a four canonical versions of the gospels, several personal letters, and some apocryphal writings attributed to John, all of it written in a style and context which hasn't existed for nearly two thousand years.  There are some liturgical elements which have survived in altered form.  And that's it.

I'm not ignoring all of the writings and innovations to liturgy and artwork since then, nor denying any continuity with this work, the early church and the present, but given how central the interpretation and re-interpretation of these original surviving elements of the earliest churches have been and continue to be in defining and shaping Christianity, how we use such source material is extraordinarily important.  And as much as it can provide insight and inspiration, it can also be used to fashion blinders and to keep us from recognizing or experiencing the larger realm of revelation beyond such sources.  To use what has now become a tired but useful Buddhist expression, we must be wary of allowing ourselves to mistake the finger (which is pointing to the moon) for the moon (itself). 

Those clinging to the certainty of their shallow and limited notion of faith, in this case of God and Jesus (and we can make a similar case for other religions as well, hence the title of this essay), will find such a suggestion blasphemous.  I've been an atheist and I have practiced Buddhism, so I have been called worse by such folks.  It is of no concern to me for my own sake, but for theirs.  My heart goes out to them.  To limit the Divine, whatever name or image we use for it, in such a way is the true blasphemy.  It is more importantly a shame and a waste.  The guide book is not the trip itself, nor is the rough map the whole of the territory in all of its expansiveness and wonder.  I sometimes think many of these religious folks would be much closer to God if they were agnostics or mild atheists.  It would probably be better for a number of them spiritually than the view(s) they have now. 

I have known what we loosely call God in many ways, through Christian fundamentalism, agnosticism, atheism, Buddhism, and back into Christianity again.  As not-God/some wondrous nothing, as the Tao, as emptiness/the dharmakaya, as ultimate reality, God has been faithful.  God takes many forms and many names.  I am happy to follow as God in terms of agnosticism, in which God is only perceived as categories such as truth and beauty and compassion.  I am happy to follow God in terms of Buddhism, which doesn't accept the typical Western view of a Creator, wherein God is perceived as our truest nature and pure awareness.  And I am happy to follow God described by philosophers and theologians such as Buber, Tillich and Kuhn as that which is the ground of being, beyond the categories of existence/nonexistence and personal/impersonal, the transcendent Thou, and yet described by Jesus as "Abba", a devoted and doting father who loving shaped me into who and what I am.

I know some folks find that kind of freedom to be scary or heretical or outrageous.  I know they do.  And for the most part they are right.  But that's life with the living God, and not a comfortably stuffed and mounted deity.

*My usage of the terms "follow(ing) God" and "living God" needs to be taken in the context of my overall approach to religion, but this is not an apology for using these expressions.  I am sorry if the baggage many people carry with such phrasing is hard for them to bear, but if you read my material at all you should have some inkling that my views are expansive and encouraging and rather than repressive or restrictive. 

**I just don't have the energy at the moment to make the same length critique for Buddhism, but I think many Buddhists can see some of the parallels.  A similar though process has been expressed for Buddhism here on this blog several times before anyway, most recently I believe it was tangentially touched on in
this post.

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