Sunday, March 1, 2009

Paul a liar?

How Jesus became God.
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.

4 comments:

ddjango said...

I don't believe that Paul was a "liar" in the pure sense of the word. I do think that he had some sort of heavy-duty conversion experience and also may have been schizoid or bipolar.

I also think that we must see both Paul and Jesus in their own historical contexts.

As you know, Jeanette, I do not believe Jesus was god. But, historically, they both saw the critical deficiencies in the state of humankind and in their own ways advocated radical solutions.

As an atheist, I am still devoted to practicing what Jesus taught. Because of my views on Paul's state of mind and historical context, I see Paul as a fanatical zealot, whose religion has, at best, detracted from and corrupted Jesus' teaching. I believe he was trying to "save" Judaism, while Jesus offered comfort and example to all people, regardless of their religions.

Jeanette said...

"Schizoid or bipolar"! Paul has aroused strong reactions throughout history, so you may not be the only person who thought this. I don’t at all. I think he was just very intense, but I'm actually more curious about your view that Paul was trying to save Judaism.

ddjango said...

As you know, Paul is not a favorite of mine. His agenda feels more political than spiritual to me. I try to be aware of the political and historical context in which he traveled and wrote.

Judaism in his time was threatened by its own factions and their interaction with the cultures and religions they encountered throughout the Roman empire. So Paul and his followers had an agenda. He was concerned about the "purity" of the Jews' relationship with God. Please remember that "Christianity" was a concept and practice that developed over time - it was not initially a rival of Judaism, but another faction among many.

As for Paul's "craziness", we'll continue to disagree - although I recognize that my own clinical background informs my tendency to see a certain cluster of symptomatology in his zealotry and rigidity. Unfortunately, he reminds me too much of Jerry Falwell and militant anti-abortionists.

Be at and about peace.

Jeanette said...

Yes, we'll continue to disagree about Paul's mental state. To be sure, he was an irascible character. But I like Paul's mysticism as in "Christ lives in me,” in other words, divinity resides in all of us, a favorite theme of Meister Eckhart.

Paul produces powerful meditations on what it is to be "in Christ,” and they echo devotional phrases in pagan religions, those that managed to survive the Christian purges of religious rivals. In Second Corinthians 5:17, Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” This new creation theme also is not unique to Christianity. If we could apply the mystical parts of Paul’s preaching universally, we could build bridges with other religions.

Christianity's connections with Judaism are well known, its debt to Hellenistic pagan religions less so.