Friday, January 16, 2009

Jesus, an uncommon guy

We are the only ones who have ultimate truth? Preposterous.
As early as grade school I realized that no religion could be “the one true church.” I questioned the claim in the creed, “the ONLY son of God,” which Jesus himself refutes when he tells his disciples to become sons of God (Mt 5:45, Lk 6:35).

Most devotees of Jesus are unaware that he was a rebel who jolted people out of conventional beliefs. The gospels are fun to read if you can rid your mind of ponderous dogmatic pronouncements. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is a very human hero challenged by family as well as neighbors and enemies. He pushes listeners to see ordinary things in new ways.
• Love your enemies. (Lk 6:27, Mt 5:44)
• Damn you hypocrites who worry about appearances but cover up the rot inside.
• When someone hits you on the cheek, offer the other one. If someone takes your coat, offer your shirt. (Lk 6:29, Mt 5:39-40 This meant going naked except for a loin cloth.)
• Samaritans (comparable to Muslims in our society) are good people.
• Congratulations, those of you who are starving! You'll have a feast” (Luke 6:20-21).
• Give to everyone who begs from you. (Lk 6:30, Mt 5:42)
• Damn you, Pharisees! You love your prominent seats in synagogues and the respectful greetings in the market. (Lk 11:43 Substitute other words for "Pharisees" and you get the idea)
• Let the dead bury their dead.(Mt 8:22, Lk 9:60)
• I am lord of the Sabbath.
• Who are my mother and brothers? Anyone who does the will of God.

Preachers struggle to explain the last, but mostly Christians like to avoid this and other anti-familial sayings. In Mark 3: 21, for instance, his family come to take him away because they think he’s crazy. The Sabbath quotation comes with a story. Jesus and his followers are walking through a grain field, pulling off the grain heads and chomping on them. “You can’t do that on the Sabbath!” say his accusers. Jesus answers (Mk 2:27-28), “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. Translate “Sabbath” to mean religious rules and then it makes sense. Finally he says, “The son of man is lord of the Sabbath.”

“The son of man” is one of the most misunderstood phrases in the Bible. Scholars had no trouble figuring out that it referred to Jesus himself, but they ascribed to it an exalted meaning, thinking Jesus was identifying with some high-flown mythical figure. This was debunked when someone noticed the expression used in ancient Jewish texts where it simply means “I” or “me.” The urge to elevate Jesus wins over scholarship, so that many still piously say “the son of man” as if it had some ponderous significance when Jesus was simply saying, “I’m a human like everyone else.” And he implied that all humans lord it over the Sabbath.

Christians hear Jesus sayings so often they don't think much about them, but they must have startled his first listeners. Some of his sayings are so odd, no one can figure out their meaning, for instance, “Let the dead bury their dead.” I surmise that it was exaggerated language to punctuate a thought no longer accessible to us. Huston Smith in The World’s Religions gives these examples of Jesus’ extravagance in language:
If your hand offends you, cut it off. If your eye stands between you and the best, gauge it out. Jesus talks of camels that hump through needles’ eyes, of people who fastidiously strain gnats from their drinks while oblivious of the camels that caravan down their gullets. His characters go around with timbers protruding from their eyes, looking for tiny specks in the eyes of others. He talks of people whose outer lives are stately mausoleums while their inner lives stink of decaying corpses.

Jesus didn’t make self-glorifying statements like predicting he would rise from the dead in three days, a detail obviously borrowed from pagan religions. The man spoke in colorful images, and he had guts. He also had periods of agonizing self-doubt. Fr. Richard McBrien points out that Mark has Jesus pray when he’s unsure what to do. He wasn’t “handed a divine script at birth that outlined every action he was to take and every word he was to proclaim.” He relied on his Higher Power, which, being a Palestinian Jew, Jesus called “Abba” or “Dad.” He talked a lot about our most precious value—the Reign of God.
• The Reign of God is like a treasure hidden in a field. The finder sells everything to buy it. (Mt 13:44, Th 109)
• The Reign of God is like yeast a woman uses to leaven flour and make the dough rise. (Mt 13:33, Lk 13:21)
• You can’t say, ‘Look, here it is’ or “There!’ The Reign of God is in your midst. (Lk 17:21, Th 113)
I'm quoting the Gospel of Thomas, which contains many of the sayings in Matthew and Luke.

No pious goody-goody, Jesus was a troublemaker, a man with passion and wit who deliberately exaggerated to get people's attention. He was subversive, railing against established religion, against the beliefs and rules that "everybody" follows to be accepted. If Jesus were living today, he’d hang out in gay bars, in homeless shelters, with drug addicts, in ghettos. He sought out the rejected—the sinners we like to look down on so we can feel superior. He defied conformist expectations so much that people called him a glutton and drunkard (Mt 11:18-19, Lk 7:33-34). I like this revolutionary prophet much better than the god in church language.

I’ve had debates with atheists who argue there never was a Jesus of Nazareth. But I believe this man existed because he said such counter-cultural things, and they fit the jaw-dropping things said by sages in other spiritual systems, notably Buddhism and Hinduism. Deepak Chopra incorrectly credited Christianity with focusing on the teaching of Jesus, but our tradition really focused on the mythic Jesus, not on this more fascinating man. I like the gutsy Jesus who really lived and taught 2000 years ago much better than the elevated god worshipped in church.

This Jesus that I describe in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky might even appeal to atheists.

Extreme Conclusion
A PBS-TV program reminded me of something I’ve observed before. An archaeologist explored sites in Palestine for evidence that Bible stories are true. He began as a disbeliever, learned that places and objects referred to actually existed, and jumped to the conclusion that the stories are factual—an unwarranted conclusion, as he later seemed to realize.

One archaeological site unearthed a place called Bethsaida, where the gospels say Jesus healed a blind man and fed a multitude. The pool of Siloam, another miracle site, is coming to light in an excavation near Jerusalem. These digs do not prove anything beyond the fact that legends and myths are not spun out of nothing. Like stories that have evolved in all times, including today, they refer to actual places and events but often add fiction to fact. I believe Jesus worked some of the wonders described in the gospels, and I say why in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky.

The Bible mixes myth with history and legend and ritual and much else. If Noah’s ark were found, it would not prove that the earth was at one time covered with water, but it would base in history this story rich with symbolic meaning. In God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, I describe the probable historical event that produced this myth.

The most conspicuous example of jumping to an extreme conclusion is the conviction of some atheists that there never was a Jesus of Nazareth. This also is not based on nothing. It’s based on the discovery that the god Jesus strongly resembles pagan redeemer gods. All we need to draw a reasonable, rather than extreme, conclusion is to distinguish between man and myth.

Jesus of Nazareth, an exceptional Palestinian Jew, uplifted, inspired, taught, and healed needy people, for which he was revered after his death, when myth and legend joined history in stories about him. These simple facts indicate what could be some common ground between believers and non-believers, which is sorely needed to dampen religious strife.


Deepak Chopra's 3rd Jesus (January 16, 2009)
In The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore, Deepak Chopra, best-selling writer coming from a background in India in the Hindu, Sikh, and Catholic traditions, talks about three ways of thinking about Jesus. They parallel the three aspects I talk about in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky—the historical Jesus, the mythic Christ, and the inner Christ. But Chopra states that teachings of the historical Jesus form “the foundation of Christian theology and thought." It would be nice if this were so, but it is incorrect if we’re talking about doctrines or beliefs.

There is no disagreement among scripture scholars about the focus of Jesus’ message. It was all about the Reign of God, often translated “Kingdom.” He said nothing about his death saving the world. This was Paul's theology, and it formed the basis of Christianity, not Jesus' preaching about the Reign.

To this first pillar of belief established by Paul was added another in the fourth century—that Jesus was one of three divine persons in a holy Trinity. Paul’s Jesus was not yet equivalent to God, but his exaltation of Jesus (See my post "Paul vs. Jesus") in letters written around the year 50 CE led to the doctrine of the Trinity, which in turn led to Christians today relating to Jesus as if he were God. Believing these two propositions—the divinity of Jesus and his saving death—sets Christians apart from other religions, but the teachings of Jesus, the man who actually lived 2000 years ago, apply universally. Many religions have variations of the Golden Rule.

Chopra’s third Jesus is “the cosmic Christ, the guide whose teaching embraces all humanity.” I admit I haven’t read his book, but this description leads me to the inner guide within every human soul, the third aspect that I talk about in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky. Chopra uses the word “enlightenment,” and when I autograph books, I frequently write, “May you find enlightenment.” With that wish I end this post.