A man from Nazareth 2,000 years ago had a magnetic effect on people as he tried to raise awareness of their inner spring of divinity—the Reign of God. This man Jesus, an extraordinary, provocative mystic, embarrassed his family (Mark 3:21-35), but after his death at least one member of his family apparently changed heart.
After his death, groups of Jewish Palestinians revered Jesus and gathered together for sacred meals in memory of and devotion to their fellow Palestinian. They formed the nucleus of what would become the great religion of the Western world. Their leader was James, the brother of Jesus.
This pre-Christian Palestinian movement did not worship Jesus as God. My faith in Jesus of Nazareth is closer to the faith of these earliest Jesus followers than is that of most Christians today.
“Christ” means “Anointed One” in Greek. The name “Christian” was given to Gentile followers whom Paul converted to Jesus, but Jesus’ closest followers, the Palestinians, were not called Christians. In their Hebrew language, “Anointed One” is “Messiah.”
Palestinian Jewish followers of Jesus lost importance after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its Jewish temple in 70 C.E. Then Gentile Christians dominated the new religion and contributed the God-man imagery of paganism. It’s significant that all the documents of the New Testament were written in Greek, the language of Christians whose spirituality was formed in pagan imagery—God-man imagery.
Christianity is one of many religions.
A book reviewer in America magazine (November 10,2008) was disturbed by exactly the kind of statements that bridge the divide between religions, those challenging the claim that Christians possess a unique and superior revelation. William Reiser reviewed Ancestral Grace: Meeting God in Our Human Story by Diarmuid O’Murchu, a Catholic priest.
Reiser seems unsettled by O’Murchu’s presentation of Jesus
• as not coming to “to rescue human beings from anything.”
• as only one incarnational figure among many such religious figures.
O’Murchu’s focus on the earth that gives birth and mothers us, and his focus on the Church’s patriarchal domination and clericalism disquiet Reiser. Why? Aha! O’Murchu gives no theological significance to the cross. So here we have it again. Traditionalists can’t tear themselves away from the pillars of belief that Jesus is God and his death saved the world.
I particularly like O’Murchu’s approval of this statement by Robert Funk:
Jesus himself should not be, must not be, the object of faith. That would be to repeat the idolatry of the first believers.I agree emphatically.
Reiser objects that this view ignores the New Testament and “centuries of liturgical practice.” He’s right about liturgical practice. Readers familiar with my views know that I dislike the god of Christian liturgies. On the other hand, the New Testament presents a variety of Jesuses, not only the pre-existent divinity preached by Paul and worshipped by the tradition. Discerning readers of the New Testament see that the historical Jesus did not make himself the object of faith.
I take issue with one part of Funk’s statement. Because the first Christians lived in a world where Jesus was only one idol among many, I doubt that the first believers idolized Jesus as much as some Christians idolize him today.
Reiser states he would not “relish the prospect of outgrowing or transcending the Gospel determinants of my religious identity.” I do relish it. In fact, I see that many Christians already transcend their parochial religion and participate in the “process of evolutionary emergence” that O’Murchu envisions. Christians really true to Jesus will stop worshipping him and pay attention to his preaching.
Paul is more responsible than anyone else for turning Jesus into a god-man.
But was Paul a liar?
An atheist wrote to me,
I SERIOUSLY CONTEND THAT CHRISTIANITY IS A LIE AND IS DELIBERATELY DECEPTIVE. CONSTANTINE KNEW WHAT HE WAS DOING WHEN HE MADE CHRISTIANITY THE STATE RELIGION OF ROME. I ALSO CONTEND THAT PAUL THE APOSTLE WAS A DELIBERATE LIAR.Thanks to Paul’s passionate preaching, Jesus the Jewish prophet became a dying and rising savior similar to other divine-human saviors in pagan religions. Thanks to Paul, a Hellenistic god took the place of a Jewish prophet. Jesus the proclaimer of God’s reign became the one proclaimed.
Does this mean we can accuse Paul of spreading a lie? Go to his letters and you can’t avoid seeing that Paul has no intention of duping people. The letters evince an emotional, intense, mystical temperament, obviously sincere. As sincere as Christians around us today who worship male individuals they call God.
So what’s going on? It’s the power of religious myth.
Like the mythical Jesus, Hellenistic gods and goddesses had the power to transform people. Marinated in this culture, Paul’s spiritual inclination became a powerful tool for spreading the new religion of Christianity.
Paul did not create the myth he spread so effectively. In First Corinthians 15: 3-4 we learn that it was passed onto him. Who made up the myth and why? Nobody made it up. The belief that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose on the third day arose spontaneously from deep within the human psyche in a culture prepared for it by similar myths. This has been observed by depth psychologists and mythologists around the world.
Religious myths never are created by individuals. And they’re not just worthless lies. Anyone who has known true believers can see their transformative effect, usually for the better. Myths even have the power to transport people into communion with the spiritual reality we call God.
Understandably, the man who wrote the statement above was bitter because he’s seen firsthand the damage done to gays by a fundamentalist Christian sect that claims to “cure” gays and make them straight. Even their cruel activity comes out of conviction, although I hate to admit it because they do so much harm.
But the founders of Christianity and Christian preachers today do not mean to dupe people. What would be their motive? The power of myth is what drives irrational Christian belief that a male-only god had a male-only offspring without any female help.
Religious myths are not the same as the word “myth” used in our American culture, where it means a foolish belief with no validity. Religious myth is fiction—it’s not factual—but it’s not a lie in the sense of deliberate, intentional deception.
That Christian and pagan myths are similar shows their source from a deep psychic well in humanity. If the world understood the power of myth, we might move past believing the myths literally to building harmony between religions.