Sunday, February 27, 2011

Reconciling tradition and contemporary insight: Does Jesus save? Can we call on Jesus?

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 It also means many people will find the idea sounds outdated or irrelevant, no matter how much its proponents shout and stamp their feet.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 significance of Jesus' death and how it relates to the notion of salvation.

In the mystical view of Jesus and his vision under development, in contrast to the moralistic view, including his life and death, we have 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 therefore was without sin. Someone who died for humanity. But this last bit needs to be unpacked more in relation to the notion of salvation?

Jesus 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. 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. His death was a powerful witness to his vision as much as his life was. His vision of freedom for all people, freedom from the limits of the lesser, immature self (i.e. "sin") to the unlimited expansiveness of their truest selves, fully immersed in awareness of their divine source. The message was clear: there are no barriers between yourself and God.

Whether this is interpreted through atonement, appeasement or solidarity models, the underlying message is the same. Because of the willing sacrifice Jesus makes, our hearts can be opened to unlimited depths and complete union with our ground of being, that is, with God. So how can we understand this? Since we are going with a figurative not a literal understanding of ideas like atonement and appeasement, what does it really mean to take advantage of this? What are the mechanics of it? Or to say it another way, what must one do to be saved? And yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are again at another issues that was a major point of disagreement in the early church. Is that really a surprise? Let's dive in.

As typically conceived in the imagination of and presented in teachings of those promoting the atonement and appeasement models of moralistic Christianity, God as the tribal sky deity holds a deed on file for your soul. He bought it when the piece of himself in a human suit was crucified and notarized when that piece resurrected its suit and ascended to heaven to file it away in the cosmic clerk office. But how do you make sure you claim your prize of eternal paradise after death and avoid never-ending damnation? Well, it tends to involve the right magic words, like the Sinner's Prayer, and the proper magic ritual, like Baptism. Magic, you say? Yes, as in specific thoughts, words and actions (or combinations thereof) which manipulate unseen forces to produce a predictable and presumably desired outcome. But that isn't enough. Just like when Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Dr. McCoy were in a mental trap that made them think they were at the O.K. Corral in the episode "Spectre of the Gun" from the original Star Trek television series. If there was any doubt that the bullets were an illusion, the gunfire would really kill them, an idea adopted in the motion picture The Matrix. So then, if you don't really and truly believe that Jesus has by his passion ransomed your soul, you are doomed.

Like typical public speakers of his time,
Jesus frequently used exaggeration and hyperbole to express his conviction and sincerity; in fact, he did refer to the consequences of sin in the Gospel and even said some would be in danger of hell fire. My point here is not to litigate the debate over universalism, since others more qualified have done so repeatedly. But the idea of hell as a final destination for people who don't claim their golden ticket to heaven by properly believing in a literal view of the atonement or appeasement models doesn't work in the mystical vision of Jesus. Rescuing us from our belief in a limited self and therefore in a limited life that falls short of the glory, the fulfillment and happiness, that God intends for us, that is the understanding of being rescued from hell compatible with the mystical view. From this perspective, believing in Jesus is a matter of trust in the example he gives us both in his parables and in his life. It isn't enough to cry out "Lord! Lord!" We have to be willing to follow his example. To pray as he prayed. To live as he lived. To accept the vision he proclaimed, a vision of the unlimited potential of humanity when we are fully grounded in an awareness of God. A vision of freedom. A vision of peace. That is the Kingdom of Heaven. That is the Reign of God.

To usher in the Reign of God is to take up our own crosses and follow the example Jesus set, to be transformed by his vision and through that transform the world. The life of Jesus shows us that this path requires us to find the strength to overcome obstacles, to turn challenges and problems into opportunities for growth and transformation. But this cannot come from anything short of our own direct revelation of God, a resetting our own connection to the divine consciousness. Yet there is all this language about coming to God through Jesus, about being linked to God through Jesus, and the like. Now, is this just an artifact of the atonement and appeasement models? Or is there something more? Keep in mind that for his early followers, Jesus was the face of God. He was full communion with God, and he came to represent God on earth. Jesus was fused in the hearts and minds of these peoples not only with God, who they had been taught was remote and inaccessible, but with a teaching of connecting to God. Focusing on Jesus was a way to energize and generate faith in the vision he had shared.

Since we are trying to avoid traditional language and images to a certain degree, it is quite fortunate that we have examples of what I am getting at from the three "single practice" schools that emerged during the Kamakura period in feudal Japan, around the thirteenth century. This involves the contemplative meditation practice of Zen Buddhism, the chanting of the nembutsu of Shin Buddhism, and chanting of the odaimoku of Nichiren Buddhism. Let's take Zen first. The idea of using silence and stillness to recognize the desires of the flesh (or the restlessness of the lesser mind, the distractions of the ego, etc.) is very old, and references to listening to God through such quiet is found many places in the Bible as well in the writings of the Desert Father and others. It is probably the easiest comparison to translate here. It is the basis of modern formulations of such ancient practices like centering prayer.

Then we have the nembutsu, or repeating the name of Amida (a.k.a. Amitabha, a.k.a. Amitayus Buddha) Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. In Pure Land Buddhism, Amida is the face of Ultimate Reality, which is experienced by humans as boundless wisdom and compassion. His origin is rooted in the notions of karma held by the cultures in which his story arose, a figure from countless ages past who became the Bodhisattva Dharmakara who worked to purify defilements and accumulate merit -- enough to cover everyone everywhere. This bit is important because it was basically 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." Dharmakara vowed he would put off complete enlightenment in becoming a Buddha until he was able to save all sentient beings. In some forms of Pure Land, the relationship is seen as cooperative between Amida and the practitioner.

In Shin, the idea was refined. The practitioner's "self power" and Amida's "Other power" were not separate. On one level, yes, there is a cooperative relationship. Yet on another level, self power is just a form of Other power. This realization comes with the experience of Amida not as a powerful alien entity "out there" but the voice calling out from within. Hence even the ability to chant "Namu Amida Butsu" comes from Amida -- wisdom calling to wisdom, compassion calling to compassion. That within us that recognizes our true nature is the same as Amida (i.e. Ultimate Reality). In this view Amida couldn't have become a Buddha unless everyone was already saved. Therefore finding the reality of Amida in one's heart was proof that one was already "grasped, never to be abandoned." So then calling out to Amida doesn't "save" you, it a response. It is response to an inner conviction of the heart. It calls Amida and his qualities to mind, and it affirms that everyone has the potential to develop the same qualities. Reciting the nembutsu is also a form of gratitude. I don't think I need to spell out how this can be translated into calling on the name of Jesus, do I? Of how calling on Jesus can be seen as having a similar function?

 Finally we come to chanting the odaimoku, the title of the Lotus Sutra, which when rendered in Japanese from the Chinese is pronounced in English as Nam(u) Myoho Renge Kyo. For Nichiren Buddhists and some other schools, the Lotus Sutra was considered to be the highest and most perfect teaching of the Buddha, the final teaching that included yet surpassed all other teachings. It proclaimed all people could attain enlightenment, even women and evil persons. In Asian cultures, reading and reciting the sutras, the texts of the Buddha's wisdom, was very important as practice, and it was believed that the title summed up and contained the whole wisdom of the entire writing, so to recite the sutra's title was to recite the sutra itself. The wisdom of the Buddha, his full enlightenment, was (and is) believed by Nichiren Buddhists therefore to be contained in the title of the Lotus Sutra, in Nam(u) Myoho Renge Kyo. Most Nichiren Buddhists recite this title, given the honorific title odaimoku, to a copy of the inscription of the characters of the title printed on a scroll, which is referred to as the Gohonzon.

As some Nichiren Buddhists would describe it, this is the universal wisdom, the rhythm and power of the universe, represented in a specific object (the Gohonzon). By chanting to it, the depth of reality represented by the Gohonzon merges with the focused intentionality of the individual to bridge the subjective world of the chanter and infinite nature of existence. The translation isn't as straightforward here, but if we very loosely compare the sutra (manifestation of the highest perfect enlightenment) and Jesus (the wisdom, or logos, or word of God made flesh) and the Gohonzon and a crucifix, for example, the similarity comes into a fuzzy focus. It is similar to the nembutsu in some ways and in other ways it is distinct because it is focusing on a different aspect of the message of Buddhism. And neither are quite so similar to Zen. But in these three examples, we can see how it is that we can call or listen to God directly or through the image and person of Jesus. Because the early church saw Jesus as fusing and embodying God just as some Buddhists see the Lotus Sutra as embodying the Buddha's enlightenment and wanting to fuse to one via the other.

In the mystical understanding of Christianity being loosely sketched here, prayers and sacraments like Baptism are not unimportant. Just because they don't have the same meaning as a literal understanding of the appeasement and atonement models in moralistic Christianity does not rob them of their power of efficacy. But without an inner transformation, without an expanded awareness ourselves in God, they are in and of themselves of limited effectiveness. They aren't magical, and God isn't up an actual throne ready to flip a switch to power them up when a properly ordained person says or does the right things to activate them. God doesn't work that way in the model being used here. God must be heard in our hearts. If sitting in silence, or reciting the rosary or the name of Jesus, or praying to a statue of Mary or a crucifix amplifies that then great. If the ritual of Baptism is properly done, evoking a sense of mystery, possibility, affirmation and hope, then it has done its job. Jesus not only actually completely fused with the source of his being, he became completely identified as the symbol of this source in the hearts and minds of his early followers. In both senses he manifested and was the Christ (as that role became envisioned in the Christian community).

I did say that there was some ring of truth in the idea of the importance of belief found in the moralistic view of Jesus and salvation, and it comes down to the fact that we need a spark. A spark to overcome our complacency and incredulity, to challenge the inertia of disbelief. Prayer and sacraments may simply seem quaint or superstitious otherwise, and quite rightly so. But this spark doesn't just get flown in by Air Angel to those who are seeking, a heavenly ember from the fireplace across from God's big throne. However, if we take the word angel here to refer to any messenger rather than some winged gender-neutral humanoid, then the imagery isn't too far off. The spark comes from the flame of faith, like one candle being used to light another. It can only come from someone who has direct experience with the object of faith and has seen firsthand results. This is what Jesus imparted to the early Christian community, represented by the Holy Spirit. God's faith in us being returned through our faith in God. Without this, one simply has a community of wishful thinkers who act out of habit and tradition, out of unquestioned assumption, with all of the formal liturgy and traditional instruction but bereft of the vitality and insight that makes such outward signs meaningful and constructive.

So what might all of this have to say about the use of the sacraments, traditional prayers and practices, and issues such as the identity of the church? Sadly, we are once again at a stopping point, so if you want to continue this wild ride, you'll just have to check back later.


  1. Yes we sure as hell can call upon Jesus. I wouldn't be saved if we could to because that's how I got saved. I know I'm saved, although it's a growth process to get to a point where you can say "I know I am."

    It's love and trust, you know God you develop love and trust over time.

  2. "So what might all of this have to say about the use of the sacraments, traditional prayers and practices, and issues such as the identity of the church? Sadly, we are once again at a stopping point, so if you want to continue this wild ride, you'll just have to check back later."

    >>> those are forms of mediation. They link us to the transformation power but we have to move beyond them. We can't observe them as forms of rule and stop there. We have to touch the reality they point to. See them as tangible examples of the metaphors.

    As an anthropologist you should be familiar with this concept and probalby know some term for it (I don't) but the function of ritual is not an end in itself.

  3. Yes we sure as hell can call upon Jesus. I wouldn't be saved if we could to because that's how I got saved. I know I'm saved, although it's a growth process to get to a point where you can say "I know I am."

    It's love and trust, you know God you develop love and trust over time.

    Did I say we couldn't? The question, as always, is what exactly that means. The point of this series is that we have (often latent) assumptions, images, of how we kinda think things work. I gave contrasting examples. The view where Jesus is more or less at a magical switchboard in the sky just waiting on you to dial him up, and then the views I compared with some Japanese Buddhist practices, which are IMHO more mature and profound ways of understanding it. And as I said this notion and its implications will be developed more thoroughly in future installments.

    those are forms of mediation. They link us to the transformation power but we have to move beyond them. We can't observe them as forms of rule and stop there. We have to touch the reality they point to. See them as tangible examples of the metaphors.

    As an anthropologist you should be familiar with this concept and probalby know some term for it (I don't) but the function of ritual is not an end in itself.

    Yes, that's what I am saying, but notice my time was up. That's why I said I would write more about it later :P

  4. Oh, and by the way, I am sure there were/are Christian analogues to the Eastern examples I gave, but they are not well-known or well-established among the majority of people in most (possibly any and all) Christian communities.

  5. Yes I think it means different things. When I'm in a real crisis I just start shouting "Jesus!" Last year a tornado was coming it was headed right for us and only about a quarter mile away it was still on a path that wold take it right too us. I was out in the back yard shouting "Jesus Make the tornado go away!" It then changed directions just before it got here. I think Is said "please."

  6. Of course, the metaphors are important too. They may be "childlike," but there is a sense in which we are all children compared to the Divine, and the metaphors can help us grasp what is otherwise inexpressible. This is why the person who thinks of it as dialing for a connection to a magical switchboard-- if he dials in simple trust, reaching out as best she knows to the unseen-- may make just as real a connection as one who has a more sophisticated view.

    The problem is when the metaphors become ends in themselves, empty of their connection to deeper meaning.

  7. I agree Kristen, different models and metaphors all have value, and I am not wanting to be looking down my nose at them, but as you suggest, many of these images become and end unto themselves. I try to address this better in the more recent installments :)


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