Friday, February 25, 2011

Reconciling tradition and contemporary insight: Who was Jesus? Was he was without sin?

This is part of a series of essays exploring ways to honor religious tradition while making its message accessible and relevant to people today. It isn't officially endorsed by any group, it is an attempt to spark people to move forward with their faith. It draws on another essay sketching the outlines of two visions of the Christian message.

Too often we see important elements and individuals in religion reduced to lists of rules and theological reflections. The overly familiar images and language becomes sterile, and they make the way we speak or think of God lazy: "Almighty God", "in the name of Jesus", "who with the Father and the Holy Spirit", etc. Many have an idea that they should use these things because they are Christian, but what if we took away those convenient, easy and familiar words and the handy reactionary assumptions of theology that they hide?

Because some overarching themes became so ingrained and taken for granted in major swaths of the Christian traditions, people just assume what terms like sin and holiness mean and never really bother to explore them beyond the impression the receive from the environment in which their beliefs were formed. But what if there is more to it? What if a failure to take into account the original context of an idea or to ask how it might have been expressed today isn't just lazy, it shows a disrespect for the idea itself. It also means many people will find the idea sounds outdated or irrelevant, no matter how much its proponents shout and stamp their feet.

Let's take a look at the idea that Jesus was "without sin" and what that means about who he was and the significance of his death.

In the substitutionary atonement and appeasement models attempting to explain the meaning of the Paschal Mystery, the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of the founder of Christianity, Jesus was born to die for the sins of all of humanity. Jesus himself had to be sinless in order to be a perfect sacrifice without blemish, mirroring the sacrificial rules of the ancient Hebrew when they offered spotless animals in their attempts to get their notion of God (often understood or depicted as a tribal sky deity) to overlook their moral shortcomings. To be consistent with this model, Jesus had to be born of a virgin to avoid the blood-curse of original sin which would otherwise make him unacceptable because he would be just like us: flawed and unworthy.

This revolves around a concept of sin that is associated with morality and a concept of morality that is associated with lists of rules. In other words, you are judged to be good or bad by whether you successfully follow the required lists of rules. So, sin then is doing something naughty, that is, breaking the rules. In this view of things Jesus had to avoid all of the things on the lists of rules to remain sinless. So when people talk about Jesus being without sin, it must mean he never violated any part of the Jewish law. No disrespecting his parents, no eating pork, no lying, no having sex outside of marriage (and some would include masturbation with this), no violating the rules of the Sabbath, and so forth. In short, he was never naughty and he never made mistakes.

Wow. That sucks.

Because if you think about it, it means he wasn't one of us. Not really. Oh sure, he felt the urge to pleasure himself as a teenage boy with raging hormones, or to sneak out at night to hang out with his friends, or to just tell someone to bugger off, but he resisted. Because, you know, he was sinless. This really is just another manifestation of what some theologians have referred to as the notion of Jesus being "God in a human suit". God is totally separate from existence and cannot make mistakes or break the rules he supposedly gave to the Jews, so naturally if God sent a piece of himself to earth to be a sacrificial lamb, that piece of him wouldn't have it in his nature to break the rules either.

So what kind of accomplishment is that, anyway? And again, whether people realize they imagine the meaning of the Gospels this way or not, if you buy it then Jesus wasn't really human. Humans make mistakes, and from them they learn and grow. That is how we develop, it is how we mature, it is the process of nurturing wisdom. There are no shortcuts. We all touch the hot stove. We all tease the dog. We all fantasize about life being a particular way only to be rudely awakened. We all do short-sighted and selfish things that hurt others, especially those who love us. This is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. So, if Jesus never ever not ever did any of these things, most of which would be considered no-no's in those lists of rules for proper behavior, then he could not have been human.

This takes us into the huge debates that dogged the early church. What exactly was Jesus? Man? God? Mostly man? Mostly God? Equally both? And how exactly would any of these scenarios work, exactly? Well, duh, that would depend on what exactly man is and what exactly God is. This has been a sticky point as our understanding of the world, from spiritual, humanistic and scientific exploration, has continued to be refined. This isn't an endorsement of the naive idea that newer is better, but a recognition that we ignore either ancient wisdom or new revelations at our peril.

A very ancient idea that has a long history prior to Christianity and which has had a long history with Christianity is captured by the term panentheism. Panentheism also recognizes the transcendent aspect of the Divine. That is, while a tree or a soccer ball is part of God, and like a hologram contains the macrocosm in a microcosm, neither is the full actualization of God. This is much like a cell, which is part of an organism and which contains a DNA recipe for the organism, but which is not the whole organism (assuming of course the organism is multicellular. There are hints of this from early Christian writing, such as referring to God as that in which "we live, move and have our being."

From a panentheistic perspective, the position agreed on by the majority in the early councils of the church, that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, is readily accessible in a profound way. Everyone, indeed everything in creation, is a child of God. In the standard atonement and appeasement models, the divinity of Jesus is nearly always portrayed as unique. Jesus becomes an ideal, an exemplar, a standard by which everyone else is to be measured. This emphasis on perfection fits with the idea of Jesus as God in a human suit who by his nature doesn't ever violate the lists of rules, in this case Jewish law. The way is it usually framed is that he was human in every way, but without the sin; but as discussed, the way sin is conceived in that mindset Jesus never is truly human, not really.  Therefore, it violates the idea of Jesus being both fully divine and fully human.

This suggests that we can never be what Jesus is, or that we can do what Jesus did, and that when Jesus calls his disciples friends, or says they will be one with God as Jesus is, or that we will do what he does and greater, that can't really be true. Even if we eat his body and drink his blood, which in some cultures was a ritual mechanism for transferring the essence and powers of one person to another, we are still sinners. But at least this view does permit the idea that we can be something closer to Christ that we are now. But not completely. Even concepts of divinization such as those held by the Orthodox churches, may not permit the idea of truly becoming equal with Christ. Not for those who see Jesus as God in a human suit. Since God or gods exist in a completely separate ontological category, essentially a unique more powerful thing alongside lesser thing (such as us), we can be vicariously empowered or even mystically inserted into these greater beings, that is as good as it gets.

One way around this would be to say that Jesus was a sinner like everyone else who happened to be a great teacher, but that doesn't really fit in with any serious part of the letter or spirit of the Christian tradition. The panentheistic perspective offers something more. Nor is this something cobbled together to retrofit onto an outdated religion. As mentioned, it is an ancient idea that seems to have been part of the original Christian vision. If I thought it was just a nice idea to resolve some issues because "true" Christianity was bogus, I wouldn't bother thinking about it. I ditched Christianity 17 years ago, and I thought I was wasting my time, I wouldn't have started my re-exploration.

So what is it that a panentheistic lens gives us? It says that while the atonement and appeasement models would have fit some audiences and their expectations, they have been over-emphasized. Furthermore, it suggests that we reconsider what it means for Jesus to have been both fully human and fully divine. Jesus was indeed born divine in the sense that we all are. That is not to take anything away from him, and there historians who claim there is evidence that early Christian communities believed Jesus was born like everyone else. That doesn't need to take away from his birth narrative, which tells us quite a bit about the values the early Christian community associated with Jesus. It is the story of someone of immense importance being born vulnerable and in poverty, that he was set against the corrupt powers and authority of human institutions, and that he was destined to change the world. All the hosts of heaven, or we could say the universe itself, welcomed his coming. This imagery is one of celebration and gratitude for what Jesus represented to these founding Christian groups.

That begs the question what he represented to these groups. We can never know completely, but we know that these early Christians were typically rooted in the Jewish faith and were well versed in its teachings and myths. To appreciate how they would have looked at Jesus, we have to consider their beliefs. Looking into Hebrew scripture, while there worship of Yahweh may have begun and been shaped by cultural constraints tied to bronze age notions of divinity, there is clearly a competing and emerging awareness of God as something much more profound. Not the tribal sky deity, but the source of the song which we call reality, beyond "person" and "impersonal" (yet not somehow less than a person).

Jesus himself was clearly aware of this other, deeper understanding of God. While his life until age thirty is mostly a blank in the records of history, the Gospels paint an image of someone who didn't just have knowledge or teachings about a more expansive awareness of God and himself in God and with God. His relationship to God was unique, just as are all of our relationships to God. But the depth of his awareness of God, which permits a fuller active participation in the rhythm and flow of existence, far surpassed that of ordinary human beings. Now, those who familiar with Buddhism might wonder if this doesn't sound like I am just trying to make Jesus out to be another Buddha, the Buddha of the Jews. In fact it has become somewhat popular to suggest that during the years prior to his ministry in Judea Jesus had spent time studying and practicing in the East, perhaps in India or Sri Lanka. That is not the case I am trying to present here.

We cannot know the exact nature of Jesus' awareness of God nor of Siddhartha's experience of enlightenment, so to try to make comparisons or draw equivalents is out of our reach. But as each of us, even in a state of total conscious union with the divine, will have a unique experience and insight, it is fair to say that what both men experienced would have been distinct, even beyond historical and cultural influences. This also raises questions about the competitive nature of religious adherents and claims of exclusivity and superiority for their own sacred tradition, as if the truth must be confined to and controlled by only one group or another. While there is much common wisdom in the sayings and actions of many religious figures, Jesus' particular experience of his manifestation of God gave him a unique vision to share with those who were willing to listen. Whatever similarities it bears to other teachers and teachings do not invalidate this vision, in fact they support it.

Many events in the Gospel bear witness to the power of this relationship and the vision it inspired. The voice from heaven at the Baptism of Jesus and the Transfiguration are clearly indicators of mystical awareness and immersion in divine light. They are images representing states beyond ordinary language. The Gospels support the idea that Jesus lived and experienced every moment of his life at such depth. And what was important to someone who saw everything in its most real form? What vision did he share? That we are to love God and our neighbors and ourselves equally, which makes sense as in his sight there would be no substantial difference between them. This directly echoed the teachings of the major prophets who had preceded him in the Jewish tradition, as did his calls for challenging corrupt rulers and institutions and a preference for those who were abused, neglected, abandoned, feared, sick and unwanted. One of the things that is striking about his spin on these things is the depth of his commitment to these values.

He claimed for example that he was not trying to abolish the law but fulfill it, which he does by showing us the spirit of the law rather than clinging to its letter. The letters of the law were attempts to describe how one would express this spirit in particular circumstances, but they were not the substance of the law. In a panentheistic view, we can look beyond sin as moral judgment based on lists of rules. The picture is inverted. It is a sense of interconnection and common foundation, of being of the same substance, that is, of God, from which compassion springs.

But what about the idea he was sinless? How does all of this fit with the idea of the purity and holiness of Jesus? In this sense to say that Jesus was sinless would mean he never lost focus on God and his awareness of his connection to the universe, to his mutual relationship and dependence with all of creation. It is from such an inner disposition that his holiness, the wholeness that was his complete awareness of God, emerged; it is from whence his compassion and love sprang. This is the spring that he offered people that wells up from eternal life, when one realizes that they are part of something which transcends any particular passing form. Jesus tries to convey how we can realize that we also are, have been, and always will be one with "the Father" just as he is.

This would mean Jesus was fully human, because he needn't be seen as someone who never erred. Indeed, one account says he ran away from his parents to go to the temple. Another says he healed on the Sabbath. One way around this is to say he was God in a human suit, so he could rewrite or reinterpret lists of rules. But this isn't necessary. Nor is it necessary to say he never had romantic or sexual thoughts about attractive people, which he himself taught was the same as adultery in his effort to point to beyond the letter of the law to its spirit. He had a special capacity to see the Divine in everything, and this capacity matured as he did, eventually ennobling him to a degree where he saw past distraction and confusion. His ability to be in perfect communion with God freed him of sin, as he was never looking anywhere else for contentment or joy.  He was truly full human and fully divine.

OK, so we have this amazing person who was fully immersed in God consciousness and who was able to accomplish wondrous things, who was "one with the Father" and who was without sin. But did he really die for us? If we don't use the atonement or appeasement models, is there any point in even talking about the "sacrifice" of Jesus? Is there any real point in talking about the Paschal Mystery? Or was that just a tragic end to a wonderful life? More to come soon, so stay tuned.


  1. In opinion this is the sort of thing real theology does, and is meant to do. It's the sort of thing Paul was doing. Real theologians, like yourself, are not afraid to consider real problems and real answers. I really appreciate your work. Excellent.

  2. Thanks. It's good to know I'm not just spinning my wheels for nothing ;o)

    This part of one of at least a 3 or 4 part series, so we'll see how it goes.

  3. Oh, and I am definitely not a theologian either real or imaginary :P

  4. I see a difference between sin (causing harm to the Creation and one's own soul), and error. I do think the fullness of the Diety was somehow present in Christ, and that he also had a human nature which had limitations and could make mistakes. The scriptures show he could be overcome by fatigue. He could get frustrated with the disciples when they just weren't getting something that he'd taught them over and over again. I'm sure he must have hit his thumb with a hammer in his father's shop. I don't think his words about lust were referring to mere feelings of attraction to the opposite sex, either-- which I'm sure he felt just like any other human being does.

    But to say he did not sin is not to say he did not make human mistakes; it's to say he did not act out of selfish motives that sullied his own soul or harmed the Creation. To say the Divine Nature was fully present in such a way that he had no need of selfishness; that he did no deliberate harm to himself, to others or to his fellow creatures. Perhaps I'm just rephrasing what you're saying above; I don't know. But that's how it looks to me.

    I know you wrote of Christ being a "piece" of God somewhat facetiously, but I do think he was as fully divine as he was human. Clearly the idea of him being "a piece of God in a human suit" is a caricature of trinitarian theology, which at its true heart is humanity's best attempt to express something inexpressible. That it gets massively oversimplified and misunderstood, is not the fault of the theology itself.

    Anyway, I really like the way you open the biblical story up to more universal, less tribal, meanings.

  5. I see a difference between sin (causing harm to the Creation and one's own soul), and error. I do think the fullness of the Diety was somehow present in Christ...
    So do I. The thing is, what does that mean? I am discussing it in terms of not reaching our full potential, of living a lesser life. So for me, harming one's soul is indeed to obstruct or fail to be nourished by the divine source.

    But to say he did not sin is not to say he did not make human mistakes; it's to say he did not act out of selfish motives that sullied his own soul or harmed the Creation. To say the Divine Nature was fully present in such a way that he had no need of selfishness; that he did no deliberate harm to himself, to others or to his fellow creatures. Perhaps I'm just rephrasing what you're saying above; I don't know. But that's how it looks to me.

    Yes, the flesh (i.e. the lesser self, the ego) when left to its own devices ultimately acts out of selfishness. This is different than violating a fixed set of rules. That is one difference I have with how the idea is often presented. The other is that there was no learning curve. That violates human nature.

    This gets back to what it means to be divine and human. I do refer to the Trinitarian formula in this series, so it isn't rejected as having no value in trying to explain something profound. The issue again is how we conceive of it. If God is distinct and alien from creation, then really, we must think a piece of God gets chipped off and sent "into" our world. If God is holy and this means never mistaking mistakes or breaking lists of rules, then this piece isn't really human, it's just pretending to be while in a human suit. This was actually considered to be an early heresy.

    The view I am elaborating says we are part of God, that God is not alien or remote. Hence all of us, Jesus included, has divine roots. But not all of us can fully (or even partially!) access a direct awareness of this nature, let alone maintain this awareness. To be fully immersed in it and fused with it so that literally "he and the Father are one". If Jesus was fully human, then we should by following his example, be able to access this same awareness just as he did.

    This then suggests that Jesus also had a learning curve as well. He may have been incredibly precocious, as some Gospel elements suggest, but he would have also done of a lot of the things we did, things that the moralists would call sin, things that were selfish or foolish in our eyes. But his growing awareness of God brought him to a state beyond sin, a state he wished to convey and share with others.


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