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Christianity Versus Jesus

24252623_sEvery religion emerges from two distinct and conflicting motivations: love and power. Love (and enlightenment, from which spiritual love arises) is, in my view, the legitimate element in religion. It’s the genuinely spiritual element. In service to it, a person approaches union and communion with God/the Cosmos, and through Its influence and the revelations that this union and communion bring, love grows ever stronger and spreads to embrace ever more of creation.

But because people understand these things only dimly at best — because people want guidance from a parent figure in these matters that are so inherently confusing — because that powerful motivation combined with that poor understanding creates an opportunity for those who wish to rule — religion is also about power, and has been since the first organized religion arose at the dawn of civilization. And so the two exist side by side, intertwined like corrupted lovers, in every body of religious doctrine and teaching. In no other religion is this more dramatically displayed than it is in Christianity.

Sometimes the two motivations are commingled in the religion’s founder, as is the case in Islam for example. Muhammad began as the Prophet of God and his message was all about love. But as events unfolded, he also became a political leader, a general, a diplomat, and in effect a king, and so out of necessity had to pay attention to power as well. But that isn’t the case in Christianity, whose ostensible founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was a homeless preacher until he was condemned to death and executed. Jesus’ teachings, or at least the presentation of them in the Gospels (which are not reliable historically but at this point that matters only to historians), were all about love, and in fact highly impractical. Sell all you own and give the money to the poor? Take no thought for the future, trusting God to provide the necessities of life? Yeah, right.

Despite this, the element of power in Christian doctrine is very strong. The claim that Christianity alone possesses the truth, and that Christians will be rewarded with eternal bliss while followers of other religions or of none will spend eternity in torment, is a claim of power, not of love. It offers a reward for obedience and threatens a punishment for disobedience, and that is the essence of power. (That neither the reward nor the punishment is real matters no more than the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Rewards and punishments are effective to the extent that they are believed to be real, not to the extent they actually are.)

In fact, the essential structure of Christian doctrine and the Christian model of salvation have no support in the teachings of Jesus at all, and in some particulars are directly contradicted by those teachings. We may, therefore, speak of a conflict between Jesus and Christianity.

Let’s take a look at that structure of Christian doctrine.

The Narrative of Christian Doctrine

The essential points of Christian doctrine, greatly simplified, are as follows.

1. All human beings are condemned by God to Hell, either for Adam’s original sin, or for sins inevitably committed by the individual in life (the standard being set so high that no one can possibly meet it), or both.

2. God became human in the person of Jesus, who was God in a human body.

3. By allowing himself to be tortured and put to death, Jesus/God took the punishment on himself that he had decreed for mankind. By rising again from the grave, he proclaimed that God would no longer condemn mankind to death and Hell, but would forgive sins.

4. Each person may avail himself or herself of this benefit, this stay of execution, by devotion to the religion founded in Jesus’ name, and by sincere repentance of any sins that (inevitably) still are committed. Those who do not do this, however, are still condemned to Hell.

Other interpretations of the significance of the Crucifixion and Resurrection may be found (mostly presented by Christians who are understandably appalled by the cruelty and crudity of the traditional model of salvation), but this is the standard version, accepted as revealed truth by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and most Protestant denominations. Nuances and minor additions may be found in various churches (for example, the Roman Catholic Church insists on the importance of performing the sacraments, while Protestants usually deny the necessity of intercession by human agents and see the whole process as between the believer and god), but these four points are common to almost all versions of Christian doctrine.

The first thing to observe is that all of this flows from the motivation of power, not of love. Defenders of Christian orthodoxy say it’s about love, and to do this focus on the third point, quoting the author of the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.” (John 3:16.) But this ostensible great act of divine love and sacrifice was necessary or even possible only because of the first point: that the same God condemned everyone to perish and suffer forever in the first place. Simply put, the sacrifice of Jesus for mankind would be an act of love, if and only if the condemnation of man to death and Hell had been decreed by someone other than God. But that, according to Christian doctrine, is not so. For that reason, the entire business becomes an assertion of power: “I condemn you to suffer forever, but I’ll make you a deal. Worship me, do what I say, and I’ll let you off the hook and throw in an eternity in paradise. What do you say?” A plea-bargaining deal offered by a prosecutor to an accused criminal is not an act of love, and neither is this.

Now let’s take a look at the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and their relation to these four points of doctrine.

Jesus’ Teachings and Christian Doctrine

On the first point, the condemnation of man to Hell for sin, we find no support or even mention in any word of Jesus quoted in the Gospels. He does mention Hell a few times, or at least that’s a possible interpretation of several parable elements, and it comes out in “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” (Mark 9:47.) But this translated term can be misleading. Jesus was Jewish, and was dealing with Jewish conceptions of Hell or Gehenna, not Christian ones. Certainly there is nothing in any of the Gospels that suggests Hell as a universal fate for all mankind. It isn’t even clear that Jesus was referring to either Hell or the Kingdom of Heaven as post-mortem states; in many cases what he said about the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God implied that one entered this place or state while still alive, and so the same must be true of Hell, in the context of this quote anyway.

On the second point, the divinity of Christ, the Gospels are even more clearly in the negative. Jesus is described in several passages as being neither omniscient nor omnipotent. A good example is the time he took two tries to heal a blind man, as described in Mark  8:22-26. Another example is presented by the woman with vaginal bleeding, who healed herself by touching Jesus’ robe as he walked in a crowded street, without Jesus’ knowing who had touched him (Mark 5:24-34). What’s more, Jesus implicitly denied being God in Mark 16:18 and in Luke 18:19, when he answered the person who called him “good master” with, “Why do you call me good? There is no one good, save God alone.” Clearly, the authors of the Gospels did not believe that Jesus was God incarnate and so did not try to present him as such, however great a prophet and holy man they did present in their narratives. The Gospels were probably written some time in the late first or early second century, and so obviously the doctrine of the Incarnation arose later than that. God’s son, yes — they called him that, but that was common currency for great men in the Roman world of the time (Augustus Caesar also claimed to be the son of a god), and God’s son is not necessarily or intuitively the same as God himself.

On the third point, the Gospels contain many passages in which Jesus foretold his death and resurrection, but none in which he gave them the significance that they hold in Christian doctrine. Not once is he presented as claiming that his death was a sacrifice appeasing God’s condemnation of man to Hell. In fact, he never clearly stated why he was condemned to die, and regarding the Resurrection presented it only as proof of the impermanence of death and the power of God to triumph over death. He called for repentance repeatedly and often, but in a decidedly different context than is implied in Christian doctrine.

And as the fourth point rests logically on the first three, there is no support for that in Jesus’ teachings, either. (Also, there is no indication that he ever intended his teachings to be the basis for a new religion. He was a Jew, and however unorthodox and unconventional his teachings were in the view of the defenders of Jewish orthodoxy of the time, he presented them in a Jewish context as what he considered a true interpretation of Judaism.)

In short, there is no support for, and on some key points clear denial of, Christian doctrine in the teachings of Jesus. The two are in clear conflict.

Where Did Christian Doctrine Come From?

If Christian doctrine regarding sin, Hell, and redemption didn’t come from Jesus’ teachings, where did they come from?

Christian doctrine emerged over the centuries between the time of Jesus and that of Constantine, so that by the early fourth century the essential points were in place, and the Council of Nicaea in 325 had only to iron out a few disagreements and issue official proclamations regarding them. During the same period, a structure of Church authority also emerged in the form of “bishops” who exerted theoretical authority over Christians in particular cities, with the bishops of the really important cities of the Empire (Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage, and later Constantinople) eventually being proclaimed patriarchs or archbishops. However, not all Christians recognized the bishops’ authority, and they had no way to enforce that authority as long as Christianity remained an illegal religion.

The doctrine of the Trinity, of which the concept of the divinity of Christ is a part, emerged in the second century, but was quite controversial. One may find the arguments in the writings of many of the Church fathers before 325, such as Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Origen. All of these men, however, were of the orthodox and authoritarian division within the church, and their positions reflected this; in fact, Irenaeus is most famous for his polemic against what he regarded as heretical views, especially those of the Gnostics. Thus, they represent only one view of Christianity among the many that contended during the post-Apostolic period.

Although they held no real temporal power and were particularly endangered whenever an Emperor or a local official decided to institute an anti-Christian persecution (this happened a lot less often in the pagan Roman Empire than many Christians believe, but it did happen), the “bishops” were, naturally enough, those men who were particularly motivated by power within the Christian community. Those who were not, did not seek to become bishops. The scholars whose writings they supported were, therefore, those whose views supported them and their desire for power, which rested on an authoritarian version of Christian doctrine. This version is the one that scholars today call “proto-orthodox,” and with a few tweaks is essentially the same as the “orthodox” version which emerged from the Council of Nicaea, and which I have outlined above.

During the period when Christianity was illegal, the only way the bishops had to enforce their rule was through words and influence over people’s beliefs. They could (and sometimes did) “excommunicate” heretics from the church, but this held no more temporal significance than it does today, in contrast to the dire consequences that prevailed under the Christian Roman Empire or during the Middle Ages. Once it became allied with the state, the church could impose temporal penalties for disobedience, up to and including the torture and slaughter of “heretics” in the thousands, but in the post-Apostolic period that was impossible, and so a structure of belief that imposed non-falsifiable penalties for disobedience developed. The most important elements of Christian doctrine, from the perspective of power, are the promise of Heaven for orthodoxy and obedience, and the threat of Hell for the contrary. It is from this source — the power structure of “bishops” within the church, and their desire to rule — that Christian doctrine comes — not from the teachings of Christ.

Christian doctrine is in service to power.

The teachings of Jesus are in service to love.

The two are in sharp disagreement and conflict.

Anyone who wishes to follow the latter must, therefore, reject the former.

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False Certainty and Dogma: The Downside of Monotheism

Let’s start with a deceptively complex question that looks simple. What exactly is monotheism? It lies at the core of all the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith). All four of these insist that God is One, although with slightly different emphasis. No religion outside that lineage holds this belief, although one finds a unity underlying the surface diversity in many approaches to spirituality that are otherwise polytheistic, from the Greek philosophers to Hinduism to some versions of Neopaganism.

To complicate matters more, many people who are theoretical monotheists are polytheists in practice. This includes Christians who pray to Mary or to the Saints, Muslims who also sometimes pray to Mary, and those who invoke different aspects or Names of God for different purposes. Monotheism, therefore, isn’t the worship of only one deity. That generally doesn’t happen; our minds are too limited to do that, and can’t wrap themselves around something as cosmic as Everything. Instead, monotheism is the theoretical belief that there is only one God, and this is made compatible with polytheistic practice by demoting deities in the plural to saints, angels, prophets, or a prophet’s mother.

Monotheism has one advantage over polytheism, and that is its inherent recognition of the unity of the cosmos. Monotheists avoid the fragmentation that can afflict polytheists (as discussed last week), but conflict arises of a different kind, and it emerges precisely from that limitation of the human mind that cannot grasp the All either by reason or by imagining. When one recognizes the unity of All, and at the same time can only imagine or grasp mentally a fragment or aspect of the All, it is easy to make the mistake of supposing that fragment or aspect to be the whole. The reality of God is too vast to be apprehended or conceived, and so something that the mind can apprehend and conceive is promoted to the role of Sole God.

Just as the mind cannot grasp the ultimate Reality, so (and perhaps even more so) human language cannot describe it or present rules or rituals or doctrines appropriate to it. This is a limitation that applies to scripture of any kind for that reason. And yet, because of the confusion that arises between what the mind can grasp and what is ultimately Real, it is very easy and common for monotheists to imbue their imaginings and limited visions and limited scriptures with an authority far beyond what they could ever merit. This gives rise to the biggest downside of monotheism: false certainty and dogma. It afflicts at least some of the believers in all four monotheistic religions of the Abrahamic lineage.

The ultimate expression of this false certainty is condemnation of those who believe differently, at times (especially when religion has been allied with the state) going so far as criminal persecution for heresy or religious war. Unlike the conflicts between polytheists discussed last week, this is not conflict caused by different Gods, but rather about different conceptions of what is supposed to be only one and the same God.

Historically, Christians have condemned Jews and Muslims for not recognizing the divinity of Christ, while Muslims have condemned Christians for seeing Christ as more than a prophet, and Jews for failing to see either Christ or Muhammad as even that much. Christians have condemned one another over points of doctrine that could matter only to those who take such things literally (which is a mistake in itself), and Muslims have condemned one another over who was the true successor of the Prophet and over teachings that went along with that. That’s all in addition to the ferocious conflict between monotheisms and polytheistic religion, from the slaughter of the prophets of Baal by Elijah described in the Bible, to the banning and condemnation of pagan religion by the Christian Roman Empire, to the bloody struggles between Islam and Hinduism in India.

The problem here is not so much disagreement (to disagree and argue is human, after all), but rather the idea that God supports one and only one doctrine, and that those who believe differently are not merely disagreeing with one another but each sees the other as going against the divine will. This is possible to believe only if one takes a limited idea — which is the only kind that the human mind can hold — and inflates that idea into identity with the All. That is the root of dogma and the origin of false certainty.

Is there anything monotheists can do to avoid this trap? Certainly, and many of them do. One can remind oneself often that God is beyond human knowledge and that we must all be humble before the Mystery. If you can wrap your mind around it and understand it, then it is not God. At best, it’s a particular viewpoint or perspective on God, the best that you can do with a finite brain. Someone else may come up with a different vision that is equally valid, even where it appears to disagree with yours.

Some monotheists have shown themselves capable of that degree of enlightenment and humility. Alas, many have shown to the contrary as well, and that is why separation of church and state is so important to the maintenance of peace and liberty. The error of false certainty and dogma is potentially deadly, and the only way to prevent that potential from becoming actual is to deny it any temporal power.

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One or Many: Further Musings

oneThis post delves further into the interaction between polytheism and monotheism. The subject rose in my mind partly because of the discussion with the anonymous Muslim who commented on The Myths of Jesus below, and partly by a briefer discussion on the creation of religion in fantasy fiction, in which the other person preferred a polytheistic faith for her fantasy worlds.

I’ve been both a monotheistic Christian and a polytheistic Neopagan in the past, and now call myself a spiritual person without a label, so perhaps I’m well positioned to discuss this subject. Whether that’s true or not, I’m going to.

Polytheism lends itself better to the creation of colorful and varied myths. A god or goddess who isn’t everything, but the divine embodiment of something, can be the subject of delightful stories. Even in the Bible, the earliest myths are apparently polytheistic; the Lord of the Book of Genesis is not the One God of later Judaism but one god among many, particularly involved with the nurturing of humanity in the Garden of Eden, but acting in concert with other gods when need arose. The stories about the Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Vedic pantheons are wonderful tales. How else could the story be told of Time (Chronos) eating his children, and his youngest son stopping his cannibalistic ways? How better could the essential dichotomy of Cunning and Strength be presented than in the stories of Thor and Loki? (I especially love the tale of how Loki disguised Thor as a woman and fooled a giant into falling in love with him, in order to infiltrate the giant’s stronghold. One can sense the thunder god’s diminishing patience with the whole scheme, and see the trickster struggling to contain his laughter.) When there are many gods, one can indulge in a sense of play and story-crafting that is lost, somehow, when the gods combine into One.

Polytheism also generates deities that are more accessible, more easily visualized and connected to the human mind, than monotheism. This is probably its biggest virtue. A god among many, part of a pantheon, does not pretend to be universal, and so we cannot make the mistake of thinking that this conception of the divine which we can imagine and get our minds around is the All. That’s a fairly common mistake among monotheists, leading to religious intolerance and narrow-mindedness.

On the other hand, polytheism also tends to locality and is not so easily adapted to universality. A good example of this effect is the crisis that the Roman Empire went through in the Third-Fourth Centuries CE. Under the Republic, the Roman empire (we don’t capitalize it yet) was a true and classic empire: one very strong nation, the city-state of Rome, dominating many others, all the lands around the Mediterranean. The pagan religion of the ancient Romans sufficed just fine when the Romans were the only ones who mattered. But this governing structure became cumbersome and unmanageable, and Augustus added a layer of governance on top of it strictly for the provinces, leaving the Republic in charge of the city of Rome and its citizens. This new layer of governance, the Empire (now we capitalize it), was detached from Rome and the Romans from the beginning, and over the centuries became less and less Roman and more an entity in itself providing government for the Mediterranean world. But the religion of the Romans was of no appeal outside Italy. It was fine as a religion for the Romans, but not for the Empire. A number of disasters in the Third Century caused a breakdown of government. It was restored under Diocletian, but his successor, Constantine, saw a need for spiritual underpinning and support for his government, something more broad-reaching and universal, and of the two main contenders, Christianity and Mithraism, he chose Christianity, with enormous historical consequences.

A comparable crisis on a smaller scale struck the Israelites when they were forcibly removed from their country and resettled elsewhere in the Middle East by the Assyrians and Babylonians. We think of Judaism as a monotheistic faith and of course that’s the case today, but in ancient times it was not. The Torah does not claim that the God of the Jews is a sole god, only that he is the one the Jews are supposed to worship above all others. Implicit in this is that other gods exist, making ancient Judaism a polytheistic religion. The Israelites obviously saw no compelling reason to abide by the First Commandment, but often wandered in their allegiance, worshiping the local deities, the Baals and Astartes of the Phoenicians. Their god was a local god, a tribal god, the god of their people in particular but not of the cosmos as a whole, and as such he commanded only limited allegiance.

This ended during the captivity. Denied access to the land where, in their prior understanding, their god lived, they could not go on as his devotees in the same way they had conceived of him. The inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom, transported by the Assyrians, seem to have simply abandoned their Jewishness and assimilated to local customs. There is every reason to believe their descendants still live in modern-day Iraq and are today Muslims for the most part (which means they came to a form of monotheism just like their southern cousins, although it took longer).

The people of the Southern Kingdom, transported by the Babylonians, changed their conception of their god instead. He became a spirit, worshiped in spirit regardless of location, and he became a universal God, rather than a local or tribal god. At this point in time, their religion took on characteristics that we can properly associate with Judaism as it exists today.

This story of the transformation of JHVH from tribal god to universal God illustrates one of the two main ways that monotheistic or monistic ideas can arise from a polytheistic background. In this process, one of the gods is promoted to One God, and all others are either demoted to the servants or messengers of the One God, or else suppressed entirely.

The other path is illustrated by the emergence in Hinduism of the concept of Brahman. Brahman is not, properly speaking, a god; it is all-that-is, the Universal Soul, and the Oneness that is found at the root of the diversity of the universe. Hindus continue worshiping their many gods and goddesses, but believe that this diversity exists only at a superficial level of reality and at a deeper level the gods are all One. In this transformation — because there is good reason to believe that the ancient Vedic religion that preceded Hinduism was straightforwardly polytheistic, without the monistic concepts that exist in Hinduism today, so this represents a transformation — no one of the gods emerged to dominate all the others. Instead, a concept was advanced of a unity underlying apparent diversity.

My own understanding of deities is in their symbolic or metaphorical power, given a life of their own through the magic of the imagination, and so their nature reflects that of nature itself. The universe is both one and many — and so the same should be true of our conception of the divine. (To the extent we even make use of one, personifying the cosmos — that is not a requirement of spirituality.) There is a tendency in both monotheistic and polytheistic faiths to reach towards the other side of the spectrum. From the monotheistic end, we find Christians, theoretically monotheists, worshiping less lofty deities created from angels and saints, or conceiving of Jesus or of Mary as someone distinct from the lofty and inaccessible God, for all that Christian doctrine insists that Jesus is an aspect of the One God, not a separate deity, and that Mary and the saints are not divine. A good many Muslims, too, seem inclined to call upon the Virgin Mary as an intercessor with God, and one finds them and Christians praying to her together in certain parts of the Middle East, despite even stricter injunctions against polytheism in the Quran.

From the polytheistic end one finds a tendency to seek an understanding of the cosmos as one rather than (or in addition to) many, a search for a binding unity and universality rather than a splintering. In addition to the Indians, the ancient Greek philosophers thought along similar lines, and there are lines of monistic thought among today’s Neopagans, too, although they are not universally agreed upon.

It seems that the spiritual instinct is to recognize both the unity and the diversity of the cosmos. And to my thinking, that’s as it should be.

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Spirituality and Magical Power

13424453_sThis relates to my current work in progress, Volume Two of Refuge, titled The Ingathering. The main character is a magical prodigy, potentially a huge asset to the Andol in their struggle against the Droon (see here for information about the Refuge world). But she has serious barriers to developing her abilities. Her magic is suppressed and causes her to exhibit psychotic symptoms, bipolar disorder with hallucinations. As she speculates:

Maybe it was like the pressure in an abscess. Her magic, bottled up inside her, pushed at her brain and wanted to get out. According to Richard, that was what caused her mood swings and hallucinations. If she learned more about it and gave it ways to come out, the pressure would drop and her symptoms should go away, or at least get better. That’s if Richard was right. Claire wasn’t totally convinced about that.

The other problem is that Claire, a Buddhist, is convinced that use of magical powers is antithetical to the quest for desirelessness and enlightenment. Use of magic feeds the ego and prevents a person from rising above the illusion of the individual self, or so Claire believes. Her powers manifest normally only in small and mostly passive ways, enhancing her perception of the world and allowing her to sense people’s feelings, see auras (including the malevolent auras of the Droon), and gain intuitive insights into the past, present, and future. She is capable of much more, but (so far anyway) these greater powers have only manifested when she loses a measure of control in a depressive or manic episode. When that happened, her depression disappeared (temporarily), but she is reluctant to learn how to use her magic because of what it may do to her spiritual journey.

This internal conflict suggested itself to me because it really exists in some spiritual contexts, mostly but not exclusively Eastern, particularly Buddhist. But one finds it in a Hindu setting as well, and Abrahamic religions have a dubious view of magic, too. Refuge is contemporary fantasy, set in our own world, and so I am in a position to use real-world religious teachings such as Buddhism and Christianity (the latter being the faith of the Scourge of God) as part of the story. In an other-world setting this may not be possible, but in crafting the religion, spirituality, and magic of the other world, or in applying fantasy elements within this one, the conflict between spirituality and magic (and its resolution, if that is possible) become potential story elements and, at very least, parts of the world.

What I’m setting out below are some points in regard to the relations between magic and spirituality as they actually exist. It’s possible to craft a fantasy version of magic that bears little resemblance to the real thing, of course, and then some of the points below will cease to be valid; magic will simply be a type of natural force that exists in the fantasy world but not (as far as we know) in the one we inhabit. My own preference both as a writer and as a reader is to start with real magic and blow it out of proportion or give mages abilities that are beyond my own, but the same in principle — something analogous to speculative science fiction, which starts with real science and speculates on what might be given further developments. The points below assume that context.

Spirituality is magical

The rituals and methods used for spiritual purposes in many esoteric and meditative paths are very similar to those used in magical practice for other ends. The power raised is essentially the same, and so are the methods by which it is channeled and focused. The only difference is the purpose to which it is put. From the point of view of religious authorities, it is those purposes that are problematical, not the power of magic itself. (Unless of course the power comes from an unacceptable source, which it may, but need not — and any mage with a grain of common sense will avoid power sources inimical to his or her own existence!)

Religious authorities are not only uncomfortable with the idea of magical power being used for worldly and perhaps malicious ends, but also with the increase in spiritual experience that may result in a context beyond their control. Every prophet is a heretic, inspired by the power of the cosmos to penetrate under the comfortable and secure illusions that religion weaves and dispute the standard doctrines. If prophecy becomes widespread, belief will become ungovernable, and religious authority will face constant rebellion, chaos, anarchy!

One finds countermeasures applied in all religious contexts. Some religions simply suppress magic and spirituality both, and try to keep everything on a rational basis. Note that this is not the same as a scientific basis. Science is rational, but its reasoning is based on observation as a touchstone. It is quite possible to be rational but unscientific, basing one’s reasoning on assumed first principles or sacred texts, rather than observation. A rigid framework of doctrine defines such an approach, and any spiritual insight that points outside the framework is condemned. What should be in the domain of mythos is instead subjected to the rules of logos.

Where suppression is either impossible or, for whatever reason, not desired, religious authorities have instead attempted to contain magic. Those with magical talent and spiritual awareness are discouraged from having children (hoping to snuff out any genetic predisposition that may exist — something we don’t actually know, of course). One finds this in the Christian and Buddhist monastic traditions and in the Hindu tradition of renouncing the world in pursuit of holiness. At the same time as the talented are forbidden to breed, they are also forbidden from being involved in the world. The monk has all his worldly needs met and turns all of his efforts and powers towards achieving holiness or enlightenment; the sadhu lives in deliberate poverty and does nothing that might impact society. Among those who might not be willing to pursue a monastic or renunciate life, teachings are spread suggesting that the use of magical powers interferes with the quest for enlightenment (such as Claire believes), or that all magical power comes from evil sources.

This is a pattern found in all the world’s major religions, but there are some religious exceptions. Notable examples are the African and African/Christian fusion religions such as Santeria, Voodoo, and Candomble, and also Neopagan religions such as Wicca and Druidism. But it is characteristic of these magic-encouraging religions that they exercise less doctrinal and behavioral control by central authorities than is common with the major faiths.

The head of the dragon

The power of magic and spirituality has been likened in one Yoga tradition to a serpent that winds about the spine. Another metaphor that I’ve used in the past is similar: this power is like the head of the dragon, which may be lifted up to the skies in flight, or may drop down towards the Earth and breathe fire.

The potential tension here is between the quest for enlightenment and the quest for power. The power of the dragon (that is to say, of magic) may be used for either one. But if it is exclusively focused on enlightenment, then it makes no difference in the way the world functions, and the potential good it might do is lost. On the other hand, if the focus is exclusively on power, then the danger of power being misused (deliberately or inadvertently) is real and high. Only by soaring high can the dragon gain the vision needed to guide his power. But only by dropping low and breathing fire can these insights be put into practice.

And that is the dilemma that Claire will face as she confronts situations where she must use her magic or see all her friends die — and at the same time, retain her focus on enlightenment that has defined her life up to now. Because if she doesn’t learn to use the power, then it will use her, and not necessarily in ways that she would like.

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The Myths of Jesus

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Two religions, Christianity and Islam, have a particular focus on the life, supposed teachings, and significance of a preacher who (may have) lived in the Roman province of Judea during the early Roman Empire. Because both of those religions are based on myths that take the form of history, and that many of their followers believe to actually be history, the myths of Jesus get bound together with historical questions about his life and its effects, and it becomes difficult to extract the one from the other. For that reason, before plunging into a discussion of the myths of Jesus themselves, I’m going to take a paragraph to say something about the history of Jesus.

We don’t know for certain whether Jesus even existed. We don’t know how much of the Gospel accounts accurately describe his career. We know some things are inherently very unlikely (the miraculous darkness, earthquake, and tearing of the Temple veil when he died, for example) because there should be independent evidence of them if they happened, and there isn’t. Other things seem historically unlikely, such as the use of nails at his crucifixion, because that isn’t how it was usually done. (Crucifixion victims were normally roped to the cross, not nailed, as they lived and suffered longer that way.) Some of the miracles attributed to him seem plausible to me, knowing what I do of magic, while others seem ridiculously over the top (but of course I have no direct evidence against their occurrence, and my knowledge of magic is not absolute and infallible.) The historical Jesus is a big question mark. Most of the questions about him are simply unanswerable, including the question of whether there ever was such a person.

However, none of that matters for purposes of spirituality or religion, or anyway none of it should. Religion isn’t founded on history, but on myth. Jesus is an image of the divine impacting the world through a man. Connected with him are other images speaking of human potential, redemption, the universality of God, and the illusory nature of death. It is these images that matter, not any connection they may or may not have to history.

Having said that, I want now to explore the Christian and Muslim myths of Jesus (these are similar, but not identical) and then some cross-observations from the Gospels and from my own quirky understanding. For the remainder of this article, I’ll be speaking only of the myths of Jesus, and completely ignoring any historical questions for the irrelevance that they are.

The Christian Myths of Jesus

In Christian belief, the ancient Jewish prophecies of the Messiah to come foretold a time when God would be incarnate in human form, and would offer himself in sacrifice to himself to pay for humanity’s burden of sin. Jesus was the fulfillment of that prophecy. He was both God incarnate and the “son of God.” The latter, which seems to contradict the former at first glance, is resolved by a philosophical understanding of “the Son” as an aspect of the one God, as He is manifest in the world (where the Father is God in His transcendent aspect, and the Holy Spirit is God as He is manifest in the human heart). When he was crucified, the demand of the Law for blood sacrifice in atonement for sins was met and fulfilled for all time, rendering that demand null and void; he was both the working-out and the overcoming of the Fall of Man. When he rose from the dead, that was a sign that the power of death to destroy us is broken, and we are heirs to life eternal.

The Muslim Myths of Jesus

In Islam, as in Christianity, the Jewish prophecies of the Messiah foretold the coming of Jesus, but for Muslims the significance is different and a little less cosmic. The prophecies foretold a time when God would expand His covenant with the Children of Israel by entering into a new covenant with all of mankind. Jesus was God’s Messenger who brought the word of that new, expanded covenant. He brought the Word of God initially to the Jews, but the Jewish religious authorities rejected his message, as had been foretold, and by turning against God’s Messenger lost their special status as the chosen people of God. They arrested Jesus and condemned him to death, but God in His compassion and justice took the Prophet into Paradise and the traitor  Apostle, Judas Iscariot, was crucified in his place. Thereafter, Jesus’ disciples spread his message and the truth of the One God throughout all the world, but in time that message became corrupted with false ideas and the influence of power-hungry institutions, requiring that God send the Prophet Muhammad with a correction.

The Gospel Accounts

The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) present a picture of a very holy and powerful man, but they also present some problems for the standard Christian view of Jesus (although perhaps not insuperable ones). They might also present some difficulties for the Muslim myths of Jesus except that Muslims don’t have the same reverence for the Gospels that Christians do and simply consider the accounts flawed and only partly true.

To begin, the Gospels have many passages which point to limitations of Jesus’ power and knowledge. He is depicted as neither omniscient nor omnipotent. For example, in Mark Chapter Six, Jesus returns to his hometown, and finds that the people there, who know him, are reluctant to accept him as a prophet. “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” (6:5) The people’s lack of belief in him limited his power, which was much greater in other contexts. In Mark 8:22-25, Jesus’ first attempt to heal a blind man works imperfectly (“I see people; they look like trees walking around”), and he is required to make a second attempt, which works better. Another passage of this kind is Luke 8:40-48. In this passage, Jesus is walking in a crowd of people and a woman plagued with a vaginal hemorrhage touches him, and his power heals her. Jesus knows that power has gone out of him, but doesn’t know the particulars, and asks, “Who touched me?” His knowledge, like his power, is depicted as having limits.

There are also a number of passages in which Jesus expresses opinions which he then changes as a result of others’ arguments or persuasion. For example, in Mark 7:24-30, a Greek woman asks Jesus to “drive a demon” from her daughter. Jesus’ haughty reply is that he is come to the Children of Israel, and “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She replies that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps,” and Jesus changes his mind and heals her daughter.

There is also at least one passage in which Jesus implicitly denies being God. That is found in Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19, where someone has referred to him as “good master” or “good teacher,” and Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good — except God alone.”

On the surface, these passages might seem to uphold the Muslim myth of Jesus over the Christian one, in that Muslims see Jesus as a great and holy Prophet but not God incarnate. However, there are other passages in which Jesus seems to imply that God dwells within him, and also within others, and that is not in accord with Muslim beliefs.

Again, though, questions of who or what Jesus “really was” are not the point here. We can’t answer such questions. The point, rather, should be about the power of myth to prevail even over contradictions from what is supposedly holy writ. The Gospels (particularly the synoptic Gospels) were composed a long time before the Imperial Church was formed in 325, or the Nicene Creed articulated. The most logical interpretation of these passages is simply that their authors had a different idea of Jesus than the Church later taught. They did not try to depict him as God incarnate because the idea simply hadn’t occurred to them. Yet this idea is central to the practice of Christian religion, which involves the worship of Jesus as an image of God. And so, passages in the Gospels which are troubling for the idea are simply glossed over and ignored.

Jesus as an Image of God

Devotion to Jesus as God incarnate is similar to the Hindu practice of Bakhti Yoga, in which some image of God (perhaps a mythical God such as Vishnu or Shiva, but often an Avatar of Vishnu, which bears even greater resemblance to the Christian practice) is the focus of love and prayer. This brings the devotee closer to the divine. It creates an association, and so a magical link, between the devotee and a large part of the cosmos, ultimately the cosmos as a whole, seen through a mythic lens.

The important thing here is not Jesus’ divinity but that of his worshipers. Through love and devotion to Jesus as an image of God, the Christian worshiper makes a connection with his or her own inner divinity, and allows that divinity to manifest in his or her life and heart.

This is a powerful method of spiritual magic. There is nothing wrong with it as far as it goes. The potential problem arises when the devotion to Jesus as an image of God gives rise to a factual belief that Jesus was God in any historical sense — the usual claims of standard Christian theology. When that belief is self-focused, it acts benignly, opening the worshiper’s heart to the divine and facilitating the raising of consciousness. When it becomes other-focused, however, it turns diabolical, giving rise to claims that non-Christians are worshiping false gods, and, when conjoined with political power, to witch-hunts, inquisitions, and crusades.

Can Christianity in some form survive to form a part of the spirituality of the advanced civilization we are evolving into? If so, it will be through recognizing the value of myth, and the fact that myth is precisely what Jesus is. As myth, he is a part of our spiritual heritage and should be a treasured part. The problems only arise when the myth is falsely — and irrelevantly — asserted to be history.

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Religion, Spirituality and Politics

Religion and spirituality, though related, aren’t the same thing. We have a deep distrust in the West of mixing religion and politics, a distrust that has only been reinforced and confirmed of late by the example of Islamic fanatics exerting dangerous influence over governments in the Middle East. (Those who think this is a problem with Islam, as opposed to one with religion in general, display their need to learn more about the history of religions, especially their own.)

Religion is in a peculiar place. Initially it emerges as an expression of spirituality, a way of communally expressing faith and love of the cosmos, a way to reunifying the divided on a social level. But a religious organization also develops business and political interests, and these compete with its spiritual imperative, sometimes eclipsing it altogether. The more a religion gains worldly power, the less spiritual it becomes. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moth and rust corrupt, and thieves break in and steal,” said Jesus, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be.” And yet within a few centuries after his death, the faith supposedly founded on his teachings had become the state faith of the Roman Empire, rich and powerful, with treasures aplenty on Earth. Within a century after that, Christian authorities were putting “heretics” to death and forcibly converting pagans to Christianity (more Christians by far were murdered for their faith by the Christian Roman Empire than by its pagan predecessor).

It’s taken the modern separation of church and state in the West to restore Christianity to a semblance of the diversity and creativity that it had prior to the Council of Nicaea and the creation of the Imperial Church. Denied political power, the Christian denominations have also been denied the ability to suppress heresy, and good things have resulted.

Islam, for its part, suffered a mixture with politics almost from the beginning, but managed to head off the danger for the most part until modern times. The Prophet Muhammad was a political leader and a war leader as well as a spiritual leader. After his death, leadership of the community of believers, which had become coextensive with most of the Arab people, passed by election according to Arab tradition, as if Muhammad had been a king — which in effect he was. A lineage of Caliphs — successors to Muhammad’s political authority — followed. While it was never asserted that the Caliphs had inherited Muhammad’s full religious authority as well as his political authority (none of them was ever considered a Prophet), the early Caliphs nonetheless tended to assert religious authority in all ways that they could argue were consistent with the Quran. This brought them into conflict with the ulema — the community of Islamic scholars and religious lawyers — which the latter eventually won, confining the Caliphs thereafter to a strictly secular leadership role. This created a sort of “separation of mosque and state” which stood Islam well for a long while, but this tradition appears to have been forgotten by a lot of Muslims today.

As is the case with Christianity, Islam today appears to express its potential best in the West, where separation of religion and state is the norm and often the law.

Even gentle Buddhism has on at least one occasion succumbed to the lure of political power, when the great King Ashoka converted to it and made it the official religion of much of India. This situation didn’t last long beyond Ashoka’s death, however, and the potential corruption of Buddhism never went as far as it did with some other faiths.

More examples could be given, but these suffice to illustrate the rule: the more political power a religious organization seeks and obtains, the less spiritual it becomes, and the more prone to violence. Religious organizations seek political authority, as does everyone, for a mix of selfish and noble reasons; it’s argued that temporal power helps religious teachers to bring people into alignment with the divine — but the more political power the religion amasses, the less in tune with the divine it becomes. No one can be brought to communion with the holy — the god sense cannot be awakened — by force. (That includes the force asserted by threat of Hell.) There is no bond that can unite the divided but love.

It would seem from a quick assessment of all this that the spiritual and the political are inherently incompatible. And yet, at the same time, there are examples of spiritual leaders who have brought about great changes in the world and had a huge impact on politics for the better. Muhammad himself is one; in more modern times, so are Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So it really isn’t the case that spirituality and politics can’t mix (though the spiritual political activist must always be aware of the danger of political causes becoming more important than spirituality itself, the tail wagging the dog, and prepared to retire to solitude from time to time to prevent that happening).

But while Muhammad and Gandhi and King mixed spirituality and politics, none of them asserted political authority based on religion. That is to say, King’s influence did not derive from his position as the pastor of a church, from the temporal power that he wielded through the church’s organization, and neither Muhammad nor Gandhi possessed such temporal religious power, Muhammad initially, Gandhi ever. They made a change in the world not through the force of arms and wealth controlled by a religious organization, but through the force of their personalities, the rightness of their causes, the subtle strength of their magic, and the power of God.

In alchemy, there is an image of the sacred marriage that involves the merging of opposites to produce the Philosopher’s Stone. The impact of spirituality on politics is one manifestation of this. If we were to insist that politics remain spirituality-free, we would in that stroke eliminate all of the good spirituality could do in the world and much of the point of its existence. (In fact, there are ways that religious organizations use to try to keep genuine spirituality powerless, such as the seclusion of Christian mystics in monasteries or the Hindu tradition of renouncing the world.)

What we require is not separation of God and state, but separation of church and state. When organizations devoted ostensibly to spiritual purposes achieve temporal power, the assertion of that power is not itself spiritual but merely another political force, another interest group — by this measure, we can usually tell those religious organizations that have lost their way.

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Prophecy, Blasphemy and Heresy

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been reading the Quran of late, and that plus the recent furor over the film Innocence of Muslims has me thinking about the subjects of prophecy, blasphemy and heresy.

I still haven’t found anything in the Quran to convince me that Muhammad was a genuine prophet, but let’s enter for a moment the mindset that says he was, and consider the Muslim tradition in regard to prophets, or messengers of God. According to the Quran there have been many such people who were sent by God to bring a message of hope or correction to humanity. Of these, six are recognized as being particularly important: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and of course Muhammad himself.

Of these, only the last is certainly historical and only the last two are even probably historical, but never mind; that’s not the point here. Let’s take the story of each prophet at face value and discuss it briefly.

Adam was the first man, a metaphor for the emergence of our species on the physical plane and the emergence of human consciousness from the depths. Before Adam, there was no such thing as religion. Adam invented the paradoxical relationship between ourselves and God.

Noah brought an unwelcome message to humanity that God was wrathful and intended their destruction if they would not turn from their wicked ways. His message was scorned and disregarded by the religious authorities of the time (and everyone else) and humanity was destroyed except for Noah and his family.

Abraham brought a message similar to Noah’s to Sodom, and he, his family, and his few followers departed from civilization to live in a wilderness and found a new people after Sodom was destroyed.

Moses summoned the descendants of Abraham, enslaved in Egypt, to turn against Egyptian ways, forced the Pharaoh to release the slaves, and found his message met great resistance from the Israelites in the wilderness.

Jesus brought a new interpretation of the Law of Moses to Israel, based on love of God and of one another, and the spirit given precedence over the letter. He was condemned as a blasphemer and executed.

Mohammed brought a message of monotheistic worship and a simple morality to the Arab polytheists and ultimately to the rest of the world, and his message was rejected by many as blasphemous and heretical.

The common thread here is a message that is rejected by those who consider themselves religious authorities — and always on good, solid doctrinal grounds. Each of these prophets (setting aside Adam as a special case) indeed did violate the teachings of the past. That’s what happens when a new message is brought: it conflicts in some way with what is currently believed, or else there would be no need for it.

Every prophet is a heretic. Every prophet is a blasphemer. What’s more, the word of every prophet, if it is accepted by the people, eventually becomes a rigid orthodoxy against which future prophets must struggle and on the basis of which the next prophet is declared heretical and blasphemous. The nineteenth century saw this played out in Iran, as a man appeared whose followers claimed he was a new messenger of God, with a word to fulfill, augment, and replace that of Muhammad. This was Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i faith, which is now the fourth religion in the Abrahamic lineage (along with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

In many respects the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh do seem like an updated, new and improved version of Muhammad’s. He expanded his spiritual vision beyond the Abrahamic traditions to embrace and designate as prophets great teachers from other religious families, such as the Buddha; he explicitly declared equality between the sexes which Muhammad, although his teachings improved the lot of women from what went before him, did not; and he called for world peace and the unification of all mankind, a teaching that seems prophetic in another sense of that word, given the ongoing cultural globalization and the need for world peace and unity that faces us.

But in doing this, Bahá’u’lláh preached heresy, because in Muslim belief Muhammad was not only a prophet but the seal of the prophets — the last prophet, whose word is the final dispensation of God before the Day of Judgment. His message was widely rejected and condemned, and he was imprisoned for years and died in prison.

The word of Muhammad in its day was a liberation from rigid, intolerant, doctrinaire beliefs, and Muslim society in the Middle Ages was more advanced and more humane and tolerant than Christian society by far. But by the nineteenth century, Islam, far from liberation, became a prison. It held people back both as individuals and as societies. Compared to the secular societies of the modern West, Islamic society had become a backwards, intolerant, ultra-conservative shackle on the collective brain, and when a new visionary came along it persecuted him and his followers and imprisoned him for life. This is the pattern. All prophets are condemned as heretics and blasphemers

Ultimately, I believe there is only one solution: the idea of orthodoxy must be abandoned, and along with it the idea of condemning anyone as a heretic. There is no reason why spirituality should not be like art or science in perpetually seeking new ideas and new metaphors for the divine. In the end, the visions of the prophets cannot be fulfilled unless everyone becomes a prophet, and that will never happen as long as we imprison our minds with rigid conceptions of the truth.

We will never have an entirely irreligious society, because, contrary to the hopes of atheists, the spiritual dimension of life and the fruits of spiritual experience are too real and compelling to permit that. But we can, I believe, have a society that is free of religious rigidity, intolerance, and the prison of dogma. We can have a society that no longer condemns its prophets as blasphemers and heretics, because it no longer recognizes the existence of heresy.

Image credit: vadmary / 123RF Stock Photo

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