Thursday, March 3, 2011

Reconciling tradition and contemporary insight: How do we connect to Jesus? What is the "good news" and who is it for?

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 It also means many people will find the idea sounds outdated or irrelevant, no matter how much its proponents shout and stamp their feet.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  and examine how a mystical approach to the identity, life and passion of Jesus can inform us about connecting to Jesus and the meaning of the Gospel.

Having discussed two divergent images of Jesus and the significance of his life and teachings as well as his death, that we have (often latent) assumptions, images, of how we kind of think things work, the stark differences of the implications of these two ways of seeing Jesus have been striking. The moralistic, literalistic, and frequently superstitious view has Jesus as a piece of God in a human suit who must be sacrificed to satisfy a cosmic need for justice from a God who is alien to his creation and who dictates sin and holiness as reduced to lists of rules. The idea of calling on Jesus is more or less conceived of as Jesus at a magical switchboard in the sky just waiting on you to dial him up and take advantage of an amazing limited time offer. It's QVC Jesus. And if you don't call up and get you ticket in time, you go to eternal torment.

The role of Jesus as the Christ in this view is exclusive rather than inclusive: inaccessible, distinct and remote (like conceptions of God). Only people who've called up, with the Sinner's Prayer/Baptism, have access. And for this to happen, Jesus has to be installed in your heart like cable or high speed internet. This gives you a lifeline to God "through" Jesus, who is like your eternal life supplier. In that sense you are "adopted" into the family of God. You weren't always a part of God who has lost its way and forgotten who and what it really is. You get your soul stamped, rather like a hand stamp at bar or an amusement park, so you can get into a place called heaven and enjoy the party and the rides. Rather than an invitation to a relationship like Christ's own with God, this connection is treated as a vicarious imitation of that relationship.

The mystic, mythic and poetic view allows for wonder and things beyond the strictly material or secular imagination, but God is not inaccessible and remote. Using a panentheistic perspective, we are of God and contain the fullness of God in the sense that a cell from an organism contains the DNA for the whole organism, yet itself isn't the whole organism. In this view we must mature spiritually to resonate and reconnect with this identity, just as Jesus did. The atonement and appeasement models of the Passion of Jesus are attempts to understand this in a cultural and psychological context in which such inherent intimacy with and in God is an alien concept. Sin is our failure to accept and actualize this reality, to fully immerse ourselves in the divine consciousness, and hence to live and act as if we are disconnected beings, who believe that our lesser selves (the flesh, the ego) are our fullest and truest selves. To live lesser lives, to truly fall short of the glory of God.

The role of Jesus as the Christ in this view is inclusive rather than exclusive. His intimacy isn't like a cable guy installing something in our hearts or some kind of possession. It in the fact that we can wholly identify with him, that we can share the same kind of relationship with our divine source, that we too can become Christ. We can become who we were meant to be. We can continue the living revelation of the vision Jesus shared. Not as mere adopted children, or as some kind of foreign organ transplant into the divine body, but as our whole selves. Hence holiness. To call on Jesus is to call on one who has gone on before, who was completely fused with his divine essence, fully aware of his own deepest nature. One who now represents this nature for all of us. Not as a bridge to the God but as a bridge to accepting that we already possess this same nature. Heaven isn't somewhere far away, it's how someone who accesses this nature sees the world around them. The Kingdom of Heaven is within us.

As said, different teachings are suited to different dispositions. But the good news of Jesus, the vision he offered and asked us to share, to realize directly in our own hearts and minds, isn't the teachings. Ironically while taking a break from writing this, I ran across the following statement (from
this article from the Sojourners blog):
Compare and contrast the stories of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46), Jesus’ words to the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-23), and finally, his famous late night conversation with Nicodemus the Pharisee (John 3:1-21). Each of these passages is about dividing lines, but that’s where their commonalities end; in each passage Jesus seems to be redrawing the boundaries.

What’s most remarkable about these four passages is that Jesus changes his message depending on what each group of listeners needs to hear to bring them to a place of repentance and transformation. To use the crass language of today’s marketing world, Jesus offers a “customized value proposition” — a message that’s tailored differently for each unique market segment...

We should at least consider the idea that Jesus’ purpose for drawing lines was not for the sake of making his prospective followers feel more comfortable about their place in his kingdom, but to challenge them, shake them out of their complacency, and call them to repentance for the things in their lives keeping them from participating in God’s best hopes and dreams for this world. Nor is the vision of Jesus reduced to lists of rules. Jesus himself tried to explain that in his own teachings on the law.

Nor is the vision compatible with the expectations of the flesh (the ego, the lesser self), even though communities have been attempting to see it that way even when Jesus was teaching in Galilee. In the mystical view developed here Jesus said things like "the first will be last", not because he believed in "firsts" and "lasts" in the Kingdom, but because he was confounding the need of his followers to think in such terms. Jesus would say something to get people to go beyond their preconceptions, and his hearers would try to translate it in terms of the flesh.

So skillful mean, that is, methods of explaining suited to particular audiences, were misunderstood. Be meek and humble now and rule later in the Kingdom. Embrace poverty and sacrifice now and get a mansion and crown later. Forgo pleasure and treasure now and get even betters forms of it later. In other words, rather than transforming and growing beyond the limited desires of the flesh, just look at it as delayed gratification. I am convinced Jesus taught this way because he knew if people embraced these virtues they would mature spiritually beyond the desire for such literal rewards because they would have discovered the true treasure, the true joy, which Jesus wanted to share with the world. They would discover it here and now, because it is always available at all times and all places. Then they in turn would want to share that same revelation with others.

Returning to the idea of connection to Jesus, we can now look at the resurrection and ascension. There is much written about this, and I won't repeat everything I've written before on the topic, but consider this: why is it that only those closest to him saw him? The cynic would say it because they made it up. But assuming that isn't the case, why wouldn't Jesus appear to everyone? Why not just walk down the street of Jerusalem? "Hey, Pharisees, how's it going? I forgive you. God bless!" He could have done quite a bit to convince people of his good news, especially if one subscribes to the moralistic notion of Christianity. If he had wanted more witnesses to prove for all time that what mattered was that his body had been brought back to life, he could have done so and made quite an impression. In such a view, this would have saved many people from damnation.

In the mystic view, only those who had directly experienced the intensity and sincerity of the vision of Jesus would have had the capacity to recognize him, not as their rabbi Jesus but as the risen Christ. In one account, Mary Magdalene failed to initially recognize him and in another account the same was true of two disciples on the road to Emmaus. While the remnant of the original twelve disciples recognize him right away, even Thomas doubted. Whether he actually touched the hole in Christ's side or not isn't the point. The larger message is that those who have no empirical evidence will be blessed for believing anyway. This can seem like a pitch for blind faith and being gullible, or we can take it to mean that we can recognize Christ because his vision rings true in the depth of our being, regardless of arguments over historical validation or religious affiliation.

The resurrection hence becomes a powerful symbol of the fact that while we -- Jack, Jerry, or Jenny -- will indeed die, as all things born must, there is an aspect of us which is beyond birth and death. But those of us who are blind to true depth, who lack mystical insight, cannot see it. Instead we live in a shallower, flatter world where we cannot be seen beyond certain limits. Hence we assume that is the whole world, and in turn the whole of our own identity. Even those who may profess belief in Christ but who do not appreciate this will try to interpret such revelations in terms that make sense to their flat view of the universe, such as getting to live on after death as more or less a ghostly duplicate of their lesser self in an ethereal replica of our ego's idealized version of the world. Hence even when Christ is identified as our deeper nature that Jesus merged with and even when we hear that it is Christ who lives in us, the full weight of this, the greater implications, are unavailable.

Similarly there is the image of the ascension. Obviously I don't subscribe to the view of Jesus sitting on a seat next to the Father. This is certainly symbolic of union and intimacy, but let's look again at God as "the Father". One of the images we can use as well is the ground of being, i.e. the source, substance and sustainer of existence; that is, the raw potential out which reality is perpetually formed and to which it dissolves. Or as some ancients put it, the Alpha and the Omega. In this sense, for Jesus to "return to the Father" is to return to the very heart of creation, which is at the very heart of all things and all people. But it's really a bit misleading, as imprecise language often is, because technically Jesus never really left.

Now all of this certainly shapes an idea of what the Gospel is about. To quote something
I've written before:

Many folks would say "If you aren't going out to save people what is the point?" But the Gospel simply means good news and the commission is to share that news. Being an ambassador and building a Church to share this news doesn't have to equate with setting up an institution to save people (which first involves convincing them they are damned). The news that you are welcome, accepted and loved beyond measure isn't trivial nor is it easy to accept. The Church and its ambassadors would have plenty to do just living as if these things were true and sharing that acceptance and love with others.

I am not suggesting that there is no notion of salvation in the mystic model offered here, because it does offer us salvation from a shallow dead-end appreciation of our lives; rather the point I am making is that there is good news beyond the idea of convincing someone to "buy fire insurance" with a "turn or burn" argument. The idea of salvation here is, as stated previously, not about as an angry sky deity who needs appeasing, but as our inability to remember divine love; to feel it, to be nurtured by it, to be healed by it. To repent is to turn away from looking for the solution to our deep longings and their resultant destructive cravings in shallow experiences and to find it in God. Again, as I've also written previously:

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, 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."

This is no trivial thing. As the article from Sojourners implies, other than as a skillful means to reach particular audiences, is there really a line saying who is "in" and who is "out"? Certainly, on one level, this is true, as some are aware of their nature in God and some are not. But does that translate into ideas such as who is worthy or unworthy? Holy or unholy? Elect or damned? Part of the family of God versus beggars sitting outside of the gates? Is the good news that you are an extreme disappointment to your Creator and, although you deserve eternal torment, he has given you a get out of hell free card? How do our ideas of the meaning of the Gospel shape what we do and how we live? Whether others find it to be truly good news or a guilt trip wrapped in a load of superstitious bullshit? The role of the Church?

Once again, we are at a stopping point. You know what to do if you want to see the rest. Have a wonderful and amazing day.

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