Thursday, March 3, 2011

Reconciling tradition and contemporary insight: Connecting the vision of the Gospel and salvation and debates about faith vs. works

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 It also means many people will find the idea sounds outdated or irrelevant, no matter how much its proponents shout and stamp their feet.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 the Gospel and the role of the Church.

If we take seriously the perspective that has been developed so far in this series exploring a mystic view of Christianity, then the Gospel, the good news to all who suffer and seek freedom from the constraints of the flesh (the lesser self, the ego, as per previous descriptions), and if we take that to mean seeking holiness, or wholeness in our divine source and substance rather than appeasing an angry tribal sky deity, then it stands to reason that the message was not intended to be meaningful only to those who give an intellectual assent to a series of historical propositions, performs the proper rituals, and conform to lists of rules written in sacred books.

The vision of Jesus, as it has been explored so far, is not constrained to arguments over interpreting documents such as the Bible. It is beyond the Bible, especially the New Testament, which did not yet exist. It is also not limited to the creeds, rituals and structures of the formal religious tradition known as Christianity, which also did not yet exist when Jesus was teaching. These two facts probably sound shocking to many who profess to be Christians, but they really shouldn't be. That doesn't mean the Bible is irrelevant or has no role in helping to guide and inspire people who aspire to seek and follow the vision Jesus offered, but too often it and institutionalized religion are used in a way that obscures or misleads rather than challenges and edifies such seekers. This is especially true when the vision of Jesus is interpreted through the eyes of the flesh rather than the eyes of the spirit, as described last time. His parables, metaphors and other analogies become twisted into fulfilling a vision compatible with the insecurities and limitations of those who have not deeply connected with their fuller, truer selves which grounded a holy mystery. Salvation becomes a golden ticket magically obtained by proper formulas, including rituals of though, speech and action, so that we can continue to exist as mirrors of our lesser selves in a place where all the desires of our lesser selves are fulfilled to an unimaginable degree for eternity. This is the distorted vision that comes from abusing an image of paradise used to help those hopelessly lost in the delusion of the flesh to at least consider seeking God.

The cleansing and healing of immersing ourselves in a deeper awareness of our divine consciousness can be unsettling, painful and in a sense is like dying, because the illusion of the lesser self as an intrinsic autonomous being who is the center of its universe is being shattered. But Jesus tells us we must be willing to let this illusion die, although for many of us this won't happen until it is forced upon us by illness or death of our bodies. That is the ultimate fear of the limited, lesser self, because everything that we tried to define ourselves by and use to make our lesser self seem concrete and permanent is lost when our brains cease working and that identity degrades along with our bodies. The idea that we and everything in existence comes from a deeper source, and that this is untouched by birth or death, is hard for us to grasp, hence the image of our ghostly form living on like it did on Earth but in a more splendid fashion. Since we don't know the more profound part of ourselves, we don't know what it means to imagine what it means to continue existing as that part of who we are. Is it less than the self I believe myself to be now? Will I no longer be me in any sense of who I think I am? These are hard questions. Without having learned to deeply touch that more fundamental nature, embodied and represented in the Christian tradition by Christ, it is easy to turn to the idea that we will continue on just as we know ourselves to be now without any substantial differences.

But did Jesus show us the way by fully embracing this nature himself and giving us the image of being both human and divine, Jesus and the Christ, so we could think this was meant only for him? That he should then be seen as unique in this regard, while we can only call on him to magically transform us by giving us by wiring our hearts for the sacred and stamping our ticket to heaven? I cannot believe it is so. I cannot disregard the consistent message that we are to take up our own crosses and follow him, so that we may be one with him and the Father as he and the Father are one. That is, that we might also touch, explore and finally embrace and embody our divine consciousness, our ultimate reality. In this way death is not trivialized as the start of a better life of fleshly paradise, but neither is it inordinately feared as the absolute end of our existence. Each life is therefore unique and unrepeatable, and hence to be prized and cherished. Each moment is a gift, even if it's a gift we don't particularly appreciate at the time.

It also means we can better understand the tension between the idea that we are already saved and yet being saved, that the Kingdom of Heaven is already here and yet still emerging. In one sense, in timeless eternal perspective, all things are perfect. Everything has happened, is happening, and will happen all at once. The normal conventions of time and space, of the historical dimension, are meaningless in the ultimate dimension. The latter gives rise to the former, and the former gives substance to the latter. It's like having a winning lottery ticket but not knowing that it is a winning ticket because you didn't hear the announcement. When you hear the news, and when you are fully able to believe it and then act on it, you will be a millionaire. In the same way we are already and have always been part of the fundamental unity and beauty at the heart of our existence, we simply have to hear the news, be able to fully process it and accept it, and then live it. When that happens the Kingdom of Heaven, which is in each rock, flower, bird and person, can be fully manifested. The unity and joy of the ultimate dimension, of the divine source, can be enjoyed right here and now, where it has always been, hidden from our eyes as if behind a veil. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Jesus meant it.

This in turn can help to clarify the idea of the second coming. Again, we have the same tension, of that which already is that which is still happening. The coming of Christ and the reign of God has already begun, yet in our hearts and minds it is not yet complete, therefore the world reflects this incompleteness in the structure of our societies, in the way we treat each other, and in the way we treat the planet and its inhabitants, human and otherwise. In the mystic view offered here, this is the hope of seasons such as Epiphany: that more and more we will seek Christ, not as something alien to be worshiped and revered from a safe distance, but as our own heritage as Jesus' brothers and sisters, that is, as humanity. To seek to find and fuse with our complete nature, or as the classic language has it, to dwell in the house of the Lord. Each time someone connects with this truth and lives in it, Christ returns. Every time someone finds that they are an incarnation of God and accepts this revelation, the reign of God draws nearer. Because each time that happens, we follow the example of Jesus and in a sense become activated. Each of us, as we awaken to this truth, is another part of the body of Christ that has become fully alive. Piece by piece this body is completed. Person by person it becomes manifest in the historical realm of time and space.

Such a mystic view stands in stark contrast the interpretation offered by the moralistic perspective, which views these things through the limits and insecurities, the greed and fear, of the flesh. A view in which a piece of God will climb into his old Jesus human-suit, fly down out of the sky, slaughter millions for having the wrong religion (along with those who happened to be born into the right religion who will also get their old human suits back to join in the carnage), and then set up a literal kingdom covering the whole earth. The mystic view does not deny that Christ and the kingdom are coming, but not like that. Unfortunately, like most things, Christianity tends to try to mix and blend these two perspectives, but in the end, they are incompatible. Deep, deep down, one is how we really think it works, and the other is imagery and symbolism. While this may not have been as apparent previously because we are used to such attempt to simultaneously hold these conflicting views for things like the divinity of Jesus or the meaning of his life and death, topics such as the second coming throw the incongruities under examination into sharp relief (as does the topic of judgment, which has yet to be properly covered).

The concept of being and yet becoming also helps to relieve the debate over faith versus works in terms of salvation. If we are saved in the sense of reconnecting to our divine consciousness, as opposed to dialing up heaven to claim our golden ticket to heaven, the issue becomes moot. The way it has been debated, the issue is more or less whether Jesus made a full one-time payment, whether he pays on installments, whether he made a down payment and we have to pay off the rest, or whether he paid off the whole thing and we have to pay him back. This is the kind of thing one gets into when one uses atonement and appeasement models so literally and therefore makes the Passion into a cosmic transaction. Again we can tie the abuse of such analogies to seeing through the eyes of the ego rather than through divine insight.

These issues matter in understanding the nature of the Gospel, of the good news. Therefore it is central to message being sent out by the church. The lines Jesus drew of who or who would not be part of the kingdom were tailored to each audience. They always seemed to put the people he was trying to reach on the outside, such as the parable of the Prodigal son, in which it is the proud and self-righteous elder brother who refuses to join in the father's feast. That was a clear message to the Pharisees. Yet this idea that some have to be in and some have to be out, like many things, was then interpreted with the eyes of the flesh rather than the spirit, and hence there had to be ways of deciding who was part of the club and who was out. How have such decisions affected the Church and the way it presents the Gospel? What does this mean, for example, about the frequent use of privileged and exclusive images and languages in the church? And issues such making the feast of the Table available only to some?

All of that is coming up in the next riveting installment, as our time is up once more. (And after that, the judgment. Well, talking about it anyway!)

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