Saturday, February 26, 2011

Reconciling tradition and contemporary insight: Who was Jesus? Did he "die for me"?

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 It also means many people will find the idea sounds outdated or irrelevant, no matter how much its proponents shout and stamp their feet.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 continue from where we left off  taking a look at the idea that Jesus was "without sin" and what that means about who he was and the significance of his death.

So when we last paused we had a picture of this amazing person who was fully immersed in God consciousness, the deeper reality of our existence, and who was able to accomplish wondrous things, someone 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?

This was another area of contention for some competing factions in the early churches, each apparently eager to accuse the other of incorrect teachings. We've seen
two very different visions of Christianity that have coexisted and commingled throughout its history: one which is rooted in a view of God that blends a Bronze age sky deity and some Greek notions of form into a being who completely distinct from the rest of reality, who in the fashion of Right Said Fred, is too holy for his own creation*, who holds to the need for blood sacrifice as justice, and who sent a piece of himself in a human suit to be the final sacrifice to spare humanity from a form of justice that involves eternal torment; the other based in a view of God as beyond human imagination or language, beyond (not below) our conception of personhood, the source, substance and sustainer of all that is, the tune that gives rise to all phenomena, expressed as closely as possible in human understanding as life and love itself.

The latter view does not deny that the symbolism of Jewish religion were central to how early Christians made sense of the life and ministry of Jesus, but it doesn't take it as being strictly literal. As
I've written before:
Coming out of a system involving sacred law and offering sacrifices, Jesus becomes the Christ by entering the world as a human who then operates within the prevailing religion and cultural beliefs by becoming the perfect sacrifice capable of covering all people for all time. He is the face of God, of Ultimate Reality, who again is saying, "Whatever you have been taught by your religion or culture about existential guilt and punishment that debt is going to be covered -- you are free."

That is, we don't have to deny the significance that the vision Jesus was trying to offer would have had to people coming out of messianic Judaism in first century Palestine, which form the roots of the atonement of appeasement models of the Paschal Mystery. But neither do we need to be limited to their understanding of who Jesus was and what his life (and death) meant. So what was this vision and how can we appreciate it outside of the two thousand year old contexts of messianic and Hellenistic Judaism?

As alluded to in my quote above, he vision Jesus offered was freedom. Total freedom. This was also rooted in the Hebrew tradition, so it’s no surprise this is how Jesus experienced and interpreted his revelation of God and how he manifested the Spirit of God. Freedom from suffering and illness. Freedom from slavery and captivity. Freedom from living under the oppression of corrupt or despotic rulers. Freedom from hypocritical religious leaders and divisive spiritual institutions which equate lists of rules with piety and holiness and which use fear and disgust as tools for conformity. Freedom from a sense of existential anxiety over the value or meaning of one's life. Freedom from insecurity and self-recrimination. Freedom from a false sense of self which limits our capacity to experience unshakable confidence and joy.

For people with certain dispositions and beliefs, the appeasement and atonement models did and still do make sense. That is fine. But let's face it. In Gospels and in the book of Acts, even the closest disciples of Jesus kept getting it wrong. They just couldn't let go of their own assumptions about the world and how things work. How often do we read examples of this (too many certainly to fully list here)? In fact, even after his death when it was apparent Jesus wasn't offering freedom by armed revolution, many of his followers simply kept believing it and simply put it off into the future, when he would return from the skies and violently overthrow evil rulers and governments.** Jesus tried to free people from seeing morality as sticking to lists of rules, but they kept trying to find ways to put the limits back on and deny what he was teaching them. He shocked them by saying that the kingdom or reign of God was a state of consciousness, that it was within them, yet many could not (and still cannot) accept that it was truly to be found within them. He informed them that they could confirm this for themselves by seeking it out the faces not just of their loved ones, but in the lives of those they feared or despised, in the midst of what people considered to be moral decay and the undesirable, that is, the "bad" parts of town (see for example parables such as the mustard seed or of the leavened bread).

Establishing the proper vision Jesus was sharing by living it out through his life is crucial for appreciating the meaning of his death. His relationship to the aspect of God he referred to as "the Father" motivated him to proclaim this good news of freedom to everyone, everywhere. This freedom was something few if any really grasped while he was teaching, because it while it did not ignore the need for reform and healing in the phenomenal world as we know it, it involved a deeper awareness of our nature. That is, to recognize that part of ourselves that neither birth nor death nor disease nor violence of any kind can change or harm. By finding sanctuary there, by taking refuge in God, Jesus taught we can find all the power and strength we need to resist injustice, to oppose oppression, to tend to the sick and disenfranchised, and to promote healing and peace in our own lives, and by extension our communities and the world. And he kept proclaiming this vision, even when angry mobs tried to kill him and even though it angered many of the elite in Jewish community.

Jesus proclaimed his vision without apology or compromise, even though he was generally misunderstood and risking his life. He was fully aware that the aspect of ourselves which arises from forgetting who we truly are would be threatened by his message. If we never develop and reconnect an awareness of our fundamental interconnection and common foundation, then we start to believe we are all intrinsic and autonomous beings who can somehow gain an advantage by taking from others. Because we have a hole in our heart from our sense of disconnection to our true nature, we seek fulfillment by trying to satisfy the needs that emerge from our lack of wholeness. Therefore such actions are associated with insecurity and hence with motivations such as anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.*** We come to believe that our partially formed and incomplete lesser selves, also sometimes referred to as the false self or the ego, is all we really are. The idea of growth is terrifying, because we believe we are the pot rather than the plant, and for the plant to grow, the pot must be shattered and reformed. Or as Jesus described it, we must be born again.
But most of us don't really want that because we haven't truly seen what Jesus did, we don't the Father as he did, and so we want to understand Jesus in some way that doesn't truly requires us to reshape our world. Deep down we really do just want to be super rich and young and virile forever and have everyone approve of us. In fact, we want it so bad that is how many people have depicted a Christian view of heaven. This may be what Buddhists call skillful means, that is, working with people where they are at because they aren't ready for the full picture, or it could be a denial of what we are called to move beyond. Most likely it's a bit of both. It is a very real sense like dying, and we are all terrified of death. Those who are successful in systems based on our limited selves are especially motivated to deny and reject such reform, not only in their own hearts but in the hearts of others. If the rabble decide they don't believe in such unjust and shallow systems, those systems will collapse.

Jesus must have known this and the reaction his teachings, which he conveyed by his actions as much as his words, would have drawn from the religious and secular authorities and how they would deal with him. Indeed, they had already tried a few times. Given his divine awareness, he may have known exactly what awaited him. Mystics report that even in their own limited periods of sacred lucidity they can see the totality of existence, even though they later cannot remember details or process more than a tiny fraction of it intellectually. Perhaps Jesus saw more clearly and was able to process and retain the full picture. In any event he knew his fate and that even those closest to him (such as Judas and Peter) were not reliable.  And despite all of this, Jesus resolutely set his face toward Jerusalem.

Jesus set himself on a collision course with those who had the most to lose from his vision. It was a confrontation between his vision and theirs. He had ample opportunity and motive to turn back. But he had the conviction of vision and that it would triumph. He would have known that liberation requires sacrifice, those who stand and lead the way for others. If he had had serious doubts that his vision was correct, that his non-violent approach rooted in unyielding compassion might fail, he might have given up or taken a path of compromise and appeasement. But because he was so completely rooted in his true self, he was able to pray "not my will but yours be done." In other words, this body and life and set of choices and events that history would come to call Jesus of Nazareth, was something more. He listened to the call of his full, true self, and despite his fear, he gave himself over completely to his vision. To the reign of God. To a world where people could find the courage to be their fully actualized selves, a world in which peace and justice bloomed everywhere like wildflowers.

Jesus would have known that he would be able to inspire others to follow him only if he followed through himself. That is how it works. To not just think or believe, but to really know the truth of the kingdom of heaven and to pursue it wholeheartedly. To demonstrate the truth of the deeper reality he was preaching. That he and everyone else was truly part of something beyond birth and death. That God, that love, gives rise to and yet is beyond the reach of birth and death. That the power of such awareness of this love never abandons us. Yet the Gospels record that Jesus cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." If we take the concept of sin presented so far, this would have represented the separation anxiety of all those who are still not fully immersed in the consciousness of God, who are still struggling and suffering with the sole reality of the lesser selves. But in the end, Jesus was not abandoned. Death had no hold true hold on him, not his true nature.

In the sense of the ancient blood curse, of the need to placate an angry sky deity, then Jesus did not die for us as a literal offering. But buried in these ancient rituals and stories is something more, a view of humanity struggling to understand their place in the universe. Trying to understand how the world works, personifying natural forces, and attempting to find the language to express their longing for wholeness, for lasting peace and prosperity. They used the ritual and symbols common to their era. To fault them for this is nonsense. But what is it to blindly copy them? To not ask what they can tell us but also how what we know can add to or improve that? Jesus may not have literally been a blood sacrifice, but he did demonstrate the wisdom that was at the core of the deepest desires of those who participated in that system of belief.

So in a very meaningful way, Jesus did die for everyone. He died for everyone who wants to believe in their most authentic selves, who doubt their own value and validity, who are estranged from their awareness of the divine nature. His death was a powerful witness to his vision as much as his life was. The power of that witness is represented in the Gospels by the image of the heavens and the earth being shaken. The message was clear: there are no barriers between yourself and God. This message can be detected in the atonement models, the appeasement models, the solidarity models, and the rest. The model of the trinity testifies to this, because we are in the triad. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit descends on the church. That which connects the Father and Jesus is now recognized as connecting others to the Father just as Jesus had been. This image is an important one that is often misconstrued as suggesting that we didn't have access to the Spirit before that event, and that access was or is limited to those who are somehow "true" Christians.

But does that make sense of the mystic and unitive model that has been presented (as opposed to the moralistic and divisive model)? What does it mean to be saved? Who or what is a Christian? Well, it's time once again to take a break, so stick around. Until next time, peace be upon you.

*Here is
a link to the song not so subtly being referenced above.

**Apocalyptic writing isn't to be taken literally, it is about a stirring vision, like poetry and acid and speed, but how easily people have accepted that "the Prince of Peace" will slaughter people until the blood is four or five feet deep, rather than meditating on the possible meaning of this clear contradiction and what it might actually be saying.

***No, lust isn't just another word for sexual arousal, sexual attraction or being "horny".


  1. I like a lot of what you're saying here. For me, though, the death of Christ is tied up in another concept-- that of cleansing. It doesn't work for me to think of the crucifixion only in terms of "solidarity" or entering into our suffering, or sin as only a disconnection from our true selves. Just as a child can go out of doors and get hurt or fall in the mud and needs to come back home for a bath and a bandage, so sin includes the idea of our souls, our inner natures, actually becoming distorted or soiled or damaged, and needing cleansing, restoration and healing. I see the death of Christ as the Divine Nature coming down into our situation and taking all the dirt and damage into Itself, so that the life and health and cleansing power of the Divine could be poured into us. In some very real way, the death of Christ cleanses and heals the soul, when the soul reaches out to God in faith.

    I think sin is more than just disconnection from ourselves. I think sin harms the Creation-- other creatures, our fellow humans, and ourselves. The harm is more than just in this physical life, but a spiritual harm, and it requires a spiritual solution. The Atonement is that solution. I agree that we all understand it according to our own mindsets, and that the minds of the people to whom Christ came, understood what He was doing only partially-- even as we ourselves can understand it only partially. But the Atonement is where God meets us at our deepest need, with God's own immeasurable Life. I hope that makes sense.

  2. I am not against the idea of cleansing, I am contrasting atonement/appeasement and solidarity in order that we can then try to understand an idea like healing and cleansing. I am not trying to paint a whole picture, or even a complete outline of a picture, in the limited space I am using here. I also think it's clear I failed to properly flesh out the implications of our disconnection from our true nature in God.

    Of course, if we live life as a limited, lesser self, if we believe this is all we are, then we will see ourselves in a distorted way. We will be insecure at a level we may not even be conscious of, and I think I said somewhere in the series this leads to selfish, often destructive behavior. This is certainly true. But these are the consequences, or the wages of sin, which I technically separate out from the basis or nature of sin.

    As far as the healing and cleansing, that has yet to be dealt with in this series because it is scheduled to be included in my review of the concept of judgment, which many liberal Christians don't like to talk about. To give an idea of how it compares (or contrasts) with what you mentioned, as I already said in the series Jesus takes a major step toward tikkun olam, toward healing the world, in his resolute commitment to his vision of freedom and of fullness of life by discovering our true selves. By taking that commitment to and beyond the cross, thereby demonstrating the truth and power of his vision. And by inviting us to follow this same path, to cultivate this awareness, to discover the truth of this vision, and then commit ourselves to it wholeheartedly just as he did.

    This process would involve "laying down our burderns", it would involve letting go of our guilt and insecurities, it would involve learning to accept unconditional love, it would involve healing the damage and confusion we endured living with the perspective and limitations of the flesh (lesser self, ego). So yes, it is no surprise atonement and appeasement models work for so many, because that is how they can be convinced that this will really work even for them. It also makes sense why we develop the image of resting in Christ, etc. But again, that's not for at least another couple of installment. Got one now in the pipeline that I just haven't had time to wrap up.


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