Mar 202011
 

The First Temptation

The first temptation centers on Jesus’ hunger, and at the very least it is the physical hunger he feels due to his fasting. Consider that fasting is a spiritual discipline, a practice taken on in order to cleanse and strengthen one’s soul, and we have a better idea of why the Spirit led him into the wilderness.  Anyone who has taken up such a practice knows the inner voice that offers excuses to take the easy way out, to give in to our desires for immediate gratification and temporary comforts rather than persevere in our devotion to greater principles.  That’s the first role in which the character of Satan makes his appearance, but what could Jesus possibly want that would give Satan an avenue to tempt him this way?  Is it merely physical hunger? As we saw in part 1, it’s not too hard to imagine that Jesus is concerned about the risks he knows await him if he follows through with challenging the authority of religious, political and economic powers to come between us and God’s peace.  So it is that I think his encounter with hunger leads Jesus to specifically face the challenges of the economic powers in his own psyche.

In both societal and personal terms, economic powers are concerned with acquiring wealth not merely for the basic needs and comforts of wellbeing, but for protecting oneself and one’s acquisitions, for the power to help and influence others, and also for indulgence in luxuries.  In his own hunger, Jesus must sympathize with the hunger of others.  It surely occurs to him that he can turn his energies, whether miraculous or not, to the development of economic power, all with the very noble intention of improving the lives of the poor and hungry.  Such a temptation would likely be amplified by knowing that his life and the lives of his loved ones can be made much more comfortable by taking a nice percentage all to themselves.  Perhaps in these thoughts he is not unlike many of us who aspire to make a living through philanthropy and humanitarian service.  Yet Jesus holds fast, reminding himself that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” After all, it was not in a shower of coins that God’s love descended upon him after baptism, but as a dove of  spiritual peace.

None of this is to say that economic power is in itself evil, or that we must all follow a path of poverty like Jesus, although arguments have sometimes been made for both ideas.  To me it seems a simple fact that we all need and want things economic power enables us to more easily acquire, while most of us would also agree that we can pursue such things to excess, and that to do so usually, if not always, becomes destructive in some way.  Despite the universal nature of such temptations, in the most immediate sense we are each alone in feeling them, alone in deciding how we will respond, and alone in our accountability for our decisions.  This does not mean that no empathy, understanding or support is available from anybody else, but simply that nobody else can step into our skin, into our souls, to directly encounter and manage what we’re facing.  The desire to escape the reality of that aloneness and responsibility is often what fuels a pursuit for physical and emotional pleasures to excess and even addiction.  Thus we see that vices of economic power have at their root an anxious sense of inadequacy, an existential emptiness, and an often unacknowledged spiritual hunger, all of which we try to soothe with things like drugs, food, possessions, and experiences of all sorts, including personal relationships and the acquiring of knowledge.

So, through the discipline of fasting alone in the wilderness, Jesus has put himself on a collision course with an opportunity to realize the significance of emptiness.  When it arrives in full force, his key realization is that the greater issue is not his physical hunger, which could easily be satisfied with a piece of bread, but rather it is a deeper hunger that we all share and that no amount of “bread”, literally or figuratively, can ever satisfy.  But what could possibly satisfy such an emptiness and hunger?

In some versions of the New Testament, Jesus is reported as saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”  This statement is a more complete reference to  Deuteronomy 8:3, which is found in the context of an admonishment to live according to the commandments of the Torah.  So a common interpretation of Jesus’ words is simply as a declaration of the importance of scripture, but there is more depth available to us.  Deuteronomy 8:3 draws a direct connection between the word of God and manna, which by the time of Jesus had long been used as a symbol of spiritual nourishment received through God’s grace.  This latter inference is most consistent with one of the central teachings of Jesus upon his return to civilization, which is essentially that the spirit of the law supersedes the letter.  In short, God’s love is our most essential spiritual nourishment.

It’s easy enough to give a religiously correct answer like “God”, or something with even broader appeal like “love”.  But if that’s all there is to it then there should be a lot less trouble in our world with angst about our emptiness and spiritual hunger and with the economic vices such angst can breed.  It seems clear that a faith based solely on doctrinal assertions isn’t enough, and here is where we find more relevance to the practice of mysticism.  While they have many differences, one thing agreed upon by existential therapies and the mystical traditions of many religions is that emptiness and spiritual hunger are facts of our being we all share, and they cannot be eliminated through any of the usual means of seeking security and comfort.  From this point, a further agreement is that, rather than trying to fill our emptiness and spiritual hunger, we must somehow accept them and come to some kind of peace with them.  By being still in meditation and mindfulness with our perceived lacking, and giving up the presumption that we can correct it, even giving up the idea that it is a wrong that needs to be corrected, we can begin to realize our emptiness and hunger not so much as a lacking, but as an openness to the countless possibilities of a wonderful mystery in which we all share.  The emptiness can thus be welcomed as our freedom, our liberation, and the hunger as our will to live it.  In learning to love our emptiness and hunger in this way, we find ourselves prepared to receive the contemplative realization of a more profound unity with the Transcendent Mystery we Christians call “God”, and this unity is Light, Life and Love itself.  The emptiness is realized as fullness.

We’ll examine the second and third temptations of Jesus in part 3.

Mar 152011
 

As often happens, another chain of synchronicities has brought a theme to the forefront.   The comments of friends and acquaintances, and my own recent experiences (including an Ignatian-type exercise related to the beginning of Lent) have highlighted the issue of aloneness for those who intend to follow a mystical path.  Over the coming weeks, I will address this theme in the context of Jesus’ own experiences of aloneness.

For just a few moments, imagine yourself as Jesus, being baptized in the Jordan by the charismatic preacher of repentance and righteousness, your cousin, John.  The water flows over you, and as you lift your eyes up to the sky you receive the Holy Spirit’s message that you are God’s beloved child.   In that moment you know you have a special mission to teach about rebirth to the peace of God’s infinite love, and to do so at all costs.  Somewhere deep inside you sense just how radical and threatening that mission will be to the powers of this world – political, religious, economic – and, at the base of it all, to the powers of the vices in the human psyche.  You have seen for yourself what such powers have done with people who were too radical, and what the final costs will likely be for you.

Retreating to Encounter Self

Is it any wonder that the Holy Spirit would lead you directly out into the wilderness to fast, meditate, and pray about this calling?  A thoughtful and cautious person might think: “Am I really up to this?  Do I really have what it takes?  I had better take some time to double-check myself, my motives, intentions, and desires, before I try to take on that kind of responsibility.”  I believe Jesus probably had such thoughts, that he walked off into the wilderness not only knowing he would be tempted, but to actually discover and deal with his temptations, allowing God’s prosecutor to put him on trial; in essence, Jesus was putting himself on trial.

Many of us have heard sermons making it seem as though Satan’s temptations were little more than formal confirmations of Jesus’ divine wisdom and commitment to his mission as the perfect Lamb of Atonement.  It is as if there were no true temptations, just staged opportunities for a barely human Jesus to prove a rebellious Satan’s foolishness.  Well, I don’t buy it.  Unless Satan is less insightful than the average con artist, he wouldn’t waste his time offering temptations that weren’t really temptations at all.  I see Jesus’ experience as parallel to the trials God allowed Satan to inflict upon Job, which were a real test of Job’s faith in the justice, mercy and love of God, a real test of his own commitment to actually hold fast to them even when it seemed God was being anything but just, merciful and loving.  As with Job, Satan’s job is to test Jesus where he is most vulnerable and, being a different man with a different life, he is tested in different ways.

So it is that by reflecting on the temptations Jesus faced alone in the wilderness, we get a deeper look into the psyche of a real human being, one with whom we can relate and feel a real sense of kinship and togetherness.  I believe that in doing so we can find his example far more inspiring and encouraging than that of a man’s body merely being used by the Creator like a sock puppet.  In part 2, we’ll consider the first temptation from this perspective.

Feb 202011
 

In Part 1 we considered the idea that serving love above all other things can sometimes lead us to break laws and ethical standards.  This idea begs us to further consider what principles we can use to help bridge the gap between the ineffable mystery of love and the concrete reality of this world.

Non-Judgment and Equality

Peter’s example in Caesarea clearly shows us that our role is not to judge people, at least not according to a literal reading of laws written for a specific culture thousands of years ago. So if even the “Rock” would not judge another person’s purity or cleanliness, even with the backing of scriptural law, then who is any of us to do so?  Once Peter managed to pass through this test and let go of the temptation to judge in that particular way, we see his actions showing us an interconnected principle that is just as much a sign and symptom of love – he welcomed Cornelius, a Gentile, as an equal.   He refused to allow Cornelius to kneel before him and said, “Stand up. I am only a man myself.” (Acts 10:26)  It is also important to understand that this position of non-judgment of another person’s worthiness of love is not taken with the disclaimers so popular among modern evangelicals, like “for all have sinned and fallen short,” or “hate the sin and not the sinner”, but the declaration that God does not play favorites.  If Peter felt called to recognize and love a Gentile as an equal before God, and did so in a time when the legalized taboos and consequences make ours look tiny by comparison, then who are we not to recognize and love others we might be tempted to judge as sinful, impure or unclean?

I suspect the progression of the law of love over the written law, with all its cultural limitations and prejudices, was at least part of what Jesus had in mind when he told the Apostles they would do even greater things than he had done.  It could be argued that the most pervasive influence of the Christian spirit on the evolution of Western society and government, and often despite the Church’s own institutionalized prejudice, has been the continuation of that progression toward recognizing the equality of each person, protecting that equality, and providing for each person’s basic well being.  Even so, in each societal shift the Church has experienced the call of radical love in conflict with Bible-based fears about the supposed sanctioning of sin.  Worse yet, those religious arguments were, and still are, used by some individuals and groups as justifications for threats, violence, and heinous acts of terror in the name of Christ.  Thankfully, however, radical love has led most of the Western world to let go of conventions like slavery, Jim Crow laws, the oppression of indigenous peoples, prohibitions on interracial marriage, and restraints on the rights of women.   Today the vast majority of Christians consider those injustices as contrary to the spirit of Christ’s love, though it seems to me that many of us are nonetheless still repeating the pattern with regard to other issues, including sexual orientation, gender identity and economic status.

Answering Legal and Moral Problems

Why would we adhere to laws and ethical standards that are out of their time and cultural context rather than answer the call for a more expansive and inclusive expression of love?  It’s my conviction that the basic problem is fear, in part because we have been taught the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7)  From that staring place, I suggest our pattern of prejudice is further based on the fearful belief that God does play favorites, and so upon the fearful hope that we can win a place among the favored.  Unfortunately, there are lots of scriptural passages that can be used to support such attitudes, which in turn seem to justify arrogantly judging others’ worthiness to be treated as equals, and then being insensitive and cruel to those considered unequal.  There is also the ordinary human fear of change, and especially of letting go of traditions that have benefited oneself even though it has been at the unfair expense of others.  Aside from these factors, there is also the perfectly reasonable fear of living in a chaotic world without rules to help settle differences on what is relatively good and right in particular situations.

There is a real need for written laws and ethical standards but, in order to not be limited to fear as our only legal and moral guide, we also need our laws and ethics to be subject to the evolving wisdom of love – otherwise we risk them becoming rigid spiritless idols of prejudice and tyranny.  This need is one reason legal and ethical systems have developed that permit changes in our understandings, and even the amendment or elimination of rules that we discern are no longer adequate.   But how can we come to know the evolving wisdom of love so that we may express it more fully?  For Christian mystics the answer begins with turning inward to realize our union with Christ, the Logos, the Light of Universal Reason, and thus with God, Love itself.  That union then achieves both wider and deeper realization through honoring every human soul’s essential connection with Love, and thus with each other.  This great work is what best enables us to judge in the only way that I believe we are truly called to do.  In practical terms, our calling is to always respond to life’s problems by trying to discern how the Spirit moves us to answer this question: What is the most loving thing to do? To have that intention as our prayer, our principal ethic and our mission, combined with the understanding that different people may come to different answers, is to have an inner guide to radical love, the kind of love Jesus actually lived and charged us to progressively spread beyond all prejudicial boundaries, no matter how sacrosanct they may seem to be.


Feb 132011
 
This post is a significant revision of a note written for my Facebook page in 2009. I retitled it “Radical Love”, and have since found there are books with the same title.  This post does not reference any works by this title.

Imagine what it would be like to be taught from infancy that God wants to be feared, gets violently jealous and angry, hates a specific list of behaviors, severely punishes the people who do them, and expects us to reflect these same attitudes and actions with each other.  Imagine you have also been taught that all these things have been literally dictated by God into a single book of lore and laws revered for thousands of years as the supreme encapsulation of absolute and unchanging Truth.  Well, for many of us Christians that’s not hard to imagine because it’s so close to the way we were raised.  Now imagine how you would feel when the most scripturally literate, charismatic and miraculous person you’ve ever met also speaks and acts in ways that violate those laws, and even claims a divine right to do so!  I think this is what it was like for the Apostles and others of their time to be in the presence of Jesus.

A Radical Idea: Breaking the Law in Order to Fulfill It

Scriptural laws, such as the Levitical laws, were deeply established as the basis of the Apostles’ world; the law dominated their identity as a culture, as families, and as individuals.  But Jesus shook things up with a radical teaching about a relationship with God and other human beings that was chiefly based on trusting God’s limitless love and listening to God’s Living Word spoken in our hearts, rather than uncritically obeying the words spoken by religious authorities or written in a book, even the Bible.  This devotion to love as the primary arbiter of righteousness and morality is what enabled Jesus to break the letter of the law in order to best serve its spirit, which I think is part of what he meant by “fulfilling the law” (Matthew 5:17).  His teaching did not set aside the Bible, but clearly placed it beneath loving God with all one’s heart, mind and strength, and loving others as oneself (Matthew 22:36-40).

To me, the Good News that God is infinitely loving, combined with the Great Commandments, is the essential formula of Christian life whether we call it mystical or not.  But as inspiring as many people have found it, to countless religious authorities and devout people of Jesus’ time that message was unacceptably threatening, just as it seems with many of us Christians today.  Yet the Apostles were close enough to Jesus to see the Divine Light, the Logos, shining through him even, and perhaps especially, when he repeatedly violated the law in fulfilling the higher law of love.  They constantly had to face tough questions about how far they should go in putting love above and beyond the laws that defined their very lives and, in fact, threatened their lives if they went too far.

If you have read the Acts of the Apostles, you know that after the death of Jesus this issue came to a head and they were deeply troubled by it.  Specifically, there was concern among them about who was and was not worthy of Christian love, and how that love could be properly expressed.  Could someone who was not Jewish be considered a sibling in Christ?  After all, those who weren’t Jewish didn’t practice all the purity codes prescribed by the Bible and Jewish tradition.  It was seriously risky to freely socialize with “impure” people, to eat with them, to touch them, let alone baptize them and treat them as beloved family members.

One of the most crucial moments of transformation on this issue is recorded in Acts, chapter 10.  Peter, the “Rock” of the Apostles, had two visions that led him to say:

God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. … I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…. (Acts 10:28, 34)

This realization is echoed in Romans 2:11, showing from that point forward the Apostles became more inclusive with their ministry, freely violating laws in the process.  It seems obvious to me that they were beginning an ever-expanding expression, a progression,  of Jesus’ teaching to put love above all other considerations. The lives of Jesus and the Apostles illustrate that Christian life is meant to be a vital, growing, evolving presence of love in this world, whether we are speaking of the whole Church, of specific congregations, or of the individual follower of Jesus.

The best examples provided by Jesus and the Apostles always take us right back to the two greatest commandments: love God with all that you are, and love others as yourself. For followers of Christ, love has never been, and never will be, more adequately captured by any other written or spoken laws.  Love is always outgrowing whatever else we want to idolize as perfect and permanent, even the literal words of the Bible.  Love forever challenges us to let go of whatever else we might cling to in the desire to feel more comfortable and confident amid all the uncertainties of life.  But, in the absence of laws settling all sorts of specific behavioral issues, are there more specific principles we can apply to be more complete and vital lovers of God and other people?  The Beatitudes reveal a wonderful set of such principles, but something very crucial is demonstrated in that early struggle of the Apostles in their post-Jesus ministry, and that’s where we will continue in Part 2.

Jan 272011
 

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58)

In light of the Logos-centered Christology reviewed in Part 1, we can revisit John 14 and hear Jesus speaking to his disciples both personally and spiritually, his voice moving back and forth between the unique humanity of their loving teacher and friend and the divine universality of the Logos, and sometimes richly speaking with double-meaning:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these….

“If you love me, keep my commands. … Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

“You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. …”

For now I’ll leave it for you, if you wish, to work out how these various statements might fit into the view we are considering.  My concerns at this point are the keynotes in Jesus’ call to know the Logos as the Way of realizing union with God.

If Jesus is telling his disciples that knowing the Logos is the Way, then he is telling them that the Way is within themselves just as it is in him.  This is not at all surprising when we recall that he has also said the Kingdom of God is within.  If we, like Phillip, want to see the Father, Jesus is telling us we must look within ourselves, behind the mask of human personality and deep into the root of our own consciousness and being, into our own “I am-ness”, and thus come to know the Logos within ourselves.  His instruction is nothing less than a prescription for mystical practice, but a contemplative opening inward isn’t all there is to it.  Jesus is quite clear that an indispensable part of the Way is following the commands of the Logos, Its compassionate inspiration, to do loving works in the world.  Actually, this must be so because to really know the Logos that was speaking through Jesus, and that also lives and speaks in you, is to know It is present in everyone.

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11)

So it is that our love for others, as manifested in the works we do for others, is evidence of how much we know and love the Logos, and thus God.  The internal and the external are repaired, reintegrated, reunited by the loving grace of Logos. It’s love for us and our love for It is one and the same love flowing out and back upon Itself, as it is written in 1 John 4:7-21 (emphasis added):

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.  This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

God is love, and God’s first-born, the Logos, the rational animating principle, is love.  One does not truly know love without being loving, thus to love is to know the Logos and so realize union with God.  The practice of love is mystical practice; to be loving is the Way, the Truth and the Life, in silent contemplation of the One and caring for others and ourselves.  This union of both passive devotion and active participation is the bhakti yoga of Jesus Christ, as encapsulated in his assertion of the Great Commandments.  The degree to which we have such faith in and experience with Divine Love as the meaning of our unique yet interconnected lives is the degree to which we are anointed, “christed”, and have died to the illusion of separation from God and others.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:3-4)

Of course, this way of understanding Jesus and his message is not the only way, and there are many Christians who would not agree with it.  Let it be so.  After all, love is more than the effort to “fathom all mysteries and all knowledge”.  So, to reiterate, the purpose of these reflections has not been to attack other views, but rather to offer another possibility to those who are seeking, and to greet those who are also on this way.

Maranatha!

Jan 252011
 

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

For most Christians this quote is typically supposed, with others like John 3:16, to clarify beyond any doubt that Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, was the one and only incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, and from that point forward is the only guide we should trust to lead us to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Such quotes have been regarded as divine declarations that Christianity is the one and only religion acceptable to God, which has in turn been wrongly considered as justification for every form of disregard, condescension, discrimination, and cruelty against non-Christians.

But is that the only way we can understand this statement? Are there other ways of understanding Jesus’ words that make theological sense and also harmonize more completely with the message that God’s love is for all (Acts 10:34-36, Romans 2:11)?

Yes, there are such ways to understand this and other passages dealing with the divinity of Jesus, and they can make a profound difference in how we live our faith and relate to other human beings.  I am about to dive into one of those views and I caution the reader that it may be challenging to your beliefs.  Please understand it is not my intention to dissuade anyone from the common view, but instead to present an option for those who are interested, and to reach out to others who see things in a similar way.

The view presently offered begins by noting that the original Greek of the first chapter of the Gospel of John identifies Jesus as an incarnation of the Logos, which is usually translated into English New Testaments as “Word”.  Logos literally means “word”, “speech”, or “reason”, but long before the time of Jesus it had become a philosophical term, especially among the Platonists and Stoics, referring to the rational spiritual principle emanated directly from the One to animate material existence.  In this role, the Logos serves as God’s “only begotten son”, the cosmic architect and intermediary between heaven and earth.

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  (John 1:1-3)

The Gospel of John’s view is remarkably similar to Philo the Jew of Alexandria’s identification of the Logos as the “Angel of the Lord”, or God’s messenger as mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.  Although Philo’s work was largely unacceptable to Jews of the times, early Christian theologians found much to admire in it.  Philo’s life (approx. 20 BCE to 50 CE) closely predated the Pauline Epistles (approx. 50-60 CE) and the Gospel of John (approx. 85-90 CE), and the ideas and language in these texts is at times so strikingly similar to Philo’s that some scholars have suspected more than a coincidental relationship, perhaps much more.  In any case, it remains that early Christians equated certain Jewish ideas about a messiah with Greek ideas of the Logos, and saw them embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they therefore honored with the Greek title equivalent to Messiah, “Xristos”, meaning “the anointed one”.   A highly significant point in making this connection is that the Logos was considered inherently present in all creatures, which is also to say that Christ is present in all people, whether they realize it or not.

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

So Christ is the Logos, the rational animating principle of Spirit that is the bridge between heaven and earth, present in every human being, even those who lived before Jesus, those who have never heard his name, and those who never consider him their savior.  The simple fact that someone exists is proof of the Logos present and active within that person.  The uniqueness of Jesus is therefore not in being an incarnation of the Logos, but in being the most celebrated exemplar of one who has fully awakened to himself as an incarnation of the Logos.

From this perspective, when Jesus speaks about being the only way to the Father, he is not speaking of himself as a historical figure with whom one must be acquainted in order to be with God; he is instead speaking on behalf of the Logos that can be recognized and embraced as God’s presence in each of us, its precious unique manifestations.  The Logos is the life in our own bodies, the spiritual Breath breathed into us by God that makes us one with God, the Inner Light of mind that makes it possible to realize the depth and fullness of “I am”.

Therefore Jesus said to them, When ye have araised man’s Son, then ye shall know, that I am, and of myself I do nothing; but as my Father taught me, I speak these things.  (This is the Wycliffe translation of John 8:28, which remains faithful to the original Greek text and does not add “Him,” “He” or anything else after “I am.”)

In Part 2 we’ll look more closely into Jesus’ message about knowing the Logos as the Way to realize union with God.

Jan 152011
 

Dedication

Today Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 82 years old. Monday is the USA’s national day of remembrance for him.  It is a great privilege to have witnessed the way Spirit worked through him to directly impact the world in which so many of us lived and matured, and into which so many more have since been born and raised.  With heartfelt gratitude to him and the One who gave him to us, I dedicate today’s post to beloved Brother King, may he rest in peace.

Click here for his speech, “A Knock at Midnight” (duration 7:24).
Click here for his last speech, “Mountaintop”, given the night before his assassination (duration 1:16).

The Humanity of Jesus

Mainstream Christian theology holds that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Even so, many of us have been schooled in a vision of Jesus where his humanity is accounted for by little more than his birth and death in a body of flesh and bone.  Yet the Gospels and other reports of his life do indeed show us something more of the human who called himself the Son of Man.  Let’s ponder the person revealed in these passages:

As a Boy

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:41-52)

After Baptism by John

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,  where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here.  For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.  (Luke 4:1-13)

When Asked to Heal a Boy

On the next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. And a man from the crowd shouted, saying, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only boy, and a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly screams, and it throws him into a convulsion with foaming at the mouth; and only with difficulty does it leave him, mauling him as it leaves. I begged your disciples to cast it out, and they could not.”

And Jesus answered and said, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” (Luke 9:37-42)

After the Miracle of Feeding Four Thousand

The Pharisees came out and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him.  Sighing deeply in his spirit, he said, “Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” (Mark 8:11-12)

Responding to Being Called “Good Teacher”

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Luke 18:19)

Before Raising Lazarus from the Dead

Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, he groaned in the spirit and was troubled.  And he said, “Where have you laid him?”

They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  Jesus wept.

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” And some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again groaning in himself, came to the tomb. (John 11:33-38)

On the Road from the Mount of Olives

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it [because he saw that it would be destroyed.] (Luke 19:41)

In the Temple

And he found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  And he made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves he said, “Take these things away; stop making my Father’s house a place of business.” (John 2:14-16)

Foretelling the Return of the Son of Man

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)

At the Last Supper

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

Before His Arrest

And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and he knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from me; nevertheless not my will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly. Then his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.  (Luke 22:41-44)

Upon the Cross

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is, being interpreted, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

What are the Implications?

Other non-canonical texts even paint a picture of Jesus as a temperamental boy and then a man with a special love for his disciple Mary Magdalene. But leaving those aside, the canonical Gospels do more than enough to challenge the notion of a Jesus untroubled by normal human feelings, like: curiosity, frustration, humility, sadness, anger (even to the point of aggression!), fearful agony, and even despair.  The Gospels certainly do not portray a being fully conscious with the transcendent all-knowing mind of God Almighty; in fact, they make it clear that Jesus considered himself less than, and subordinate to, the One he called Abba.

Please understand that none of this is intended to be a denial of the divinity of Jesus or that he was an incarnation of the Logos or Second Person of the Trinity.  It is instead offered as an opportunity to rethink what such words and ideas mean, to meditate upon the mystery of how Jesus could be divine, the Light and Word of God, and also thoroughly human.  For many of us, these considerations naturally connect with considering our own natures, and in that context let’s review two more passages in addition to one previously listed:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:1-4)

“Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came —and Scripture cannot be set aside— what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:30-38)

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

Maybe it’s enough to trust God and just sit quietly with all of this, letting Christ speak to each of us, and the Holy Spirit move each of us, as they will.

Dec 032010
 

The New Man: An Interpretation of Some Parables and Miracles of Christ

This book has been out of print for some time now, though there are reasonably priced used copies available.  The title and image are linked to free online versions.

Table of Contents

new man

Click here to read the book!

I The Language of Parable
II The Idea of Temptation in the Gospels
III The Marriage at Cana
IV The Idea of Good being above Truth
– The Miracle at the Pool of Bethesda
– The Good Samaritan
– The Laborers in the Vineyard
V The Idea of Righteousness
VI The Idea of Wisdom
VII Simon Peter
VIII The Idea of Prayer
– Introduction
– The Necessity of Persistence in Prayer
– The Necessity of Sincerity in Prayer
– Response to Prayer
– Request in Prayer
IX The Sermon on the Mount
X Faith
XI The Kingdom of Heaven
XII Judas Iscariot
Appendix

If you are a Christian, or any other seeker, who is beginning to look for more than literal meaning to the messages of the New Testament, then you’ll find this book a powerful starting place.  If you’re already well down that path, then you may also find things here that not only resonate with your own thoughts and experiences, but can bring fresh insights and challenge you in new ways.

Dr. Maurice Nicoll provides a profound view of the depths that we might plumb in the parables and messages of Jesus. Nicoll’s concern is not as much with historical or theological views of Jesus, but rather how the Gospel accounts of his life and teachings can show us the way to fulfill our potentials as spiritual beings. In the front of my copy (Fifth Impression), Nicoll clearly states his purpose in “A Note on the Author”:

The intention is to indicate that all teaching such as contained in the Gospels, and many other older and newer teachings, in the short period of known history, is about transcending the violence which characterizes mankind’s present level of being. It affirms the possibility of a development of another level of being surmounting violence.

Nicoll’s poignant interpretations are significantly shaped by his impressive background in medical, psychological and philosophical studies; he was a student of Freud, Jung, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. He believes the central psychological idea of the Gospels is the movement toward rebirth, which is to awaken as a person with a deeper understanding of self and others. Nicoll calls this movement “inner evolution”, and stresses that it must be engaged by the whole person – thoughts, feelings and actions.

One key he offers to using the Gospels for this kind of work is to view the various characters and elements as symbolic of aspects or dynamics of the soul.  For example, he takes up the symbolism of the Pharisee* not so much as a member of an historical group, or even a way of characterizing others in one’s life, but as:

…the Pharisee in oneself, to the insincere person in oneself who, of course, cannot receive any real and genuine psychological teaching without turning it into an occasion for merit, praise and award.

Another significant element of Nicoll’s view is a hierarchical appreciation of the relationship between the human and the divine.  In fact, this seems to be the very basis of his views on prayer.  He posits that prayer is an attempt to communicate upward to heaven, and as such requires persistence to the point of “shameless impudence,” yet, perhaps ironically, with a sincerity born of utter humility: “Unless a man feels he is nothing, prayer is useless….”  Even so, Nicoll makes it sound as though enough pious nagging will force God into serving us as we wish: “Only persistence and intensity can cause the higher level to respond.” (my emphasis)  On face value we might find these views troubling, but it would be extremely unfair to take Nicoll on face value, for he also says:

And let us also remind ourselves that the attainment of this higher level possible for Man is called heaven or the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospels and that it is within a man, as a possibility of his own inner evolution or re-birth of himself, and that Man at the level he is on, as an unawakened creature, an unfinished experiment, is called earth. These are the two levels, the higher and the lower, and some very great differences exist between them, as great as the differences between a seed and a flower. Thus communication between these two levels is difficult. The mission of Christ was to bridge, to connect, and to bring into correspondence in himself these two levels, the divine and the human….

Nicoll insists that “by an evolution of the whole psychic man, that is by an evolution of all his mind, his love, his will and his understanding”, the “Man of the Kingdom”, the “New Man” of Christ in us, can be born.  In the end, it seems to me that Nicoll has essentially come around to saying one’s prayers are more likely to receive a positive response as one’s whole being is more attuned to the divine.  In other words, one is more likely to get what is wanted because one is more likely to persistently and sincerely pray for what is most in harmony with the divine.

Some readers will find one of the most challenging themes of the book to be about placing Good above Truth (Nicoll’s capitalizations).  For Nicoll, issues of Truth are inevitably interwoven with differing perspectives of understanding and opinion. His concern is that doctrines and laws too often stand upon that very subjective and all too often self-serving foundation, because the person who has not attained a higher level of Good “can twist the higher Truth to suit his vanity.”  It isn’t that doctrines about Truth are to be ignored, but rather should be seen as stepping stones meant to lead us to higher levels of knowing and being Good.  So it is that even the most hallowed doctrines are misunderstood if they are not considered secondary to Good:

The Mosaic Law, or, at least the ten commandments, are instructions from the side of Truth, as to how to attain a level of Good, where, as commandments, they have no further meaning. But if they are taken as an end, and not as a means of an end, they become stumbling blocks.

Nicoll speaks of this shift of priorities from Truth to Good in the Gospel language of the first becoming last and the last becoming first.  He argues that this reversal is central to the mission of Christ, for it places our understanding of Truth within the context of Good, and not vice versa, which enables us to serve the higher purposes of doctrine, the spirit of the law rather than merely the letter.  This seems to connect well with Jesus’ statement that “all the law and the prophets” hang upon our love for God and our fellow human beings.

Finally, throughout the book it’s clear that Nicoll urges his readers to engage the challenging work of connecting with the higher levels within themselves.  While he speaks much about the honest self-awareness, genuine humility, integrity and commitment such attainment requires from the human being, he doesn’t have much to say about Divine Grace.  This omission is unfortunate because Grace is such a significant element of the Good News.  Perhaps Nicoll would say the capacity and the opportunity to do that work are themselves gifts of Grace.

[* In fairness, it’s worth noting that although the stereotype of the Pharisee is often used disparagingly among Christians, Jesus and the Apostles actually had some good friends and supporters among the Pharisees, such a Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Gamaliel.]