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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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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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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.

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The Fallacy of Scripture

I’ve recently begun reading the Quran. I’m doing it because its absence was a hole in my multi-religious education. I had never been all that interested in Islam. My initial focus after my first spiritual experience at age twelve was, more or less by default, Christianity, and thereafter I became intrigued with Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of the holy, moving thence into the Hermetic traditions and then into Neopaganism. Islam with its strict, unimaginative monotheism, its we-have-the-only-way mistake so obviously displayed, its entrenched misogyny, and its propensity for spawning violence, struck me as something I could safely bypass. However, for the sake of completeness and because knowledge is always of value, I finally decided to plunge in and read the Quran (in English translation; learning Arabic for the purpose would be further than I’m prepared to go). Also, Islam gave rise to both the Sufi and the Bahá’i faith, and that to my thinking means it must have something going for it somewhere.

This decision and a discussion about it with a Christian friend of mine sparked this post. My Christian friend Dave expressed alarm at my reading the Quran, as he believes the book has great power. He worshiped once at a mosque and felt peace descend upon him and fellowship with those who prayed with him; he took the Shahada (I have not attended a mosque and don’t know if that was a requirement) and I asked him how he could reconcile this with his Christian faith. The Shahada is a two-part declaration of faith, usually expressed in English as “There is no God but God and Mohammed is His Prophet.” I could see that a Christian would have no problem with the first part, but what about the second? But Dave apparently does believe that Mohammed was a prophet. I don’t know how he reconciles this with his personal faith, but that’s his concern I suppose. His concern about my reading the Quran was that it would be “opening a window.”

I explained that I was not really “opening a window” as I had no intention of reading the Quran as scripture. Very simply, I don’t believe there is or can be any such thing as “scripture.” That applies to the Quran, the Bible, the Baghavad-Gita, the Vedas, the Buddhist Sutras, or anything else written in human language. Such writings may (and often do) contain powerful myths and metaphorical expression of profound insight. But the way that Christians like Dave (and also Muslims) regard these books, as divine dispensations of Truth, without error, before which we must kneel and obey, questioning only insofar as to determine meaning and proper interpretation (if even that) — this is not just a false idea but one whose truth is impossible. Literally impossible. Not only has no scripture in this sense ever been written and published, but none ever will be, because none can be.

I’m not yet convinced that Mohammed was a prophet. I’ve seen no indication in the early chapters of the Quran that he had any great spiritual insights, as is clear to me about both the Buddha and Jesus. There is some powerful myth in those early chapters, true, but all of it is borrowed from Christianity or Judaism, and Mohammed actually made no bones about this; his claim was that he was speaking a divine truth that had also been brought by a long line of prophets before him. But I haven’t gotten very far into the book yet; perhaps the indication I’m seeking will show up in a later chapter and I’ll change my preliminary impression.

Be that as it may, whether Mohammed genuinely was a prophet or not, and recognizing that Jesus certainly was one (that is, he was a spiritual teacher of great enlightenment and power), the attitude that both Christians and Muslims take toward their scriptures is my subject for today, and why that attitude is and must be wrong, not only about those particular scriptures but about all pretenders to that status.

Scripture is written in human language — Sanskrit, Hebrew, Biblical Aramaic, ancient Greek, Arabic, Farsi, even English in the case of the Book of Mormon. What is language? Where does it come from, and how does it communicate ideas?

Language is at root a set of tag-sounds. An association is created between a sound and an experience or category of experience. The word “tree,” for example, is a sound associated with a category of experience involving certain tall plants. Everyone has seen trees, and so once one learns that the word is associated with — “means” — those big plants, the word can be used along with other words to communicate ideas. “Climb that tree.” “Cut down that tree.” “Prune that tree.” “Watch out, there’s a bear in that tree.”

All of this is possible because everyone has experience with the things referred to in all these sentences: climbing, trees, cutting, pruning, caution, bears. The words refer to real things with clarity because they are things within normal human experience.

But when the words refer to “God,” “salvation,” “the soul,” “eternity,” and similar ideas, that’s no longer true. These are not things within normal human experience. In fact, direct experience of any of them is quite rare, and so in the minds of most people hearing or reading the words, they will either communicate nothing or, through misapplied metaphor, communicate a falsehood.

So that’s the first problem with the idea of scripture. Insofar as it’s attempting to communicate an understanding of God, it’s attempting the impossible. I will acknowledge that many of the world’s scriptures do contain valid metaphors for divine reality, but they do not convey understanding to those whose god sense is unawakened.

Scriptures also contain many references to and statements about less lofty subjects that are a part of common human experience: moral teachings, for example. These ideas, unlike the ones connected with sacred reality, can be communicated without metaphor and can be understood. But for the same reason, in our changing world they can rapidly become obsolete. For example, this appears in the Quran (2:228-229, Sahih International version):

Divorced women remain in waiting for three periods, and it is not lawful for them to conceal what Allah has created in their wombs if they believe in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands have more right to take them back in this [period] if they want reconciliation. And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority]. And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.

Divorce is twice. Then, either keep [her] in an acceptable manner or release [her] with good treatment. And it is not lawful for you to take anything of what you have given them unless both fear that they will not be able to keep [within] the limits of Allah . But if you fear that they will not keep [within] the limits of Allah , then there is no blame upon either of them concerning that by which she ransoms herself. These are the limits of Allah , so do not transgress them. And whoever transgresses the limits of Allah – it is those who are the wrongdoers.

I have no doubt that at the time these verses were written, they represented an enlightened teaching, introducing a measure of justice and compassion to the ways in which pre-Muslim Arabic men treated women. In today’s context in the West, however, they sound quite barbaric. That will be the fate of any moral teaching that can be expressed in any language, as time passes, technology progresses, and material circumstances change.

Scripture consists of these two categories of writing: those that attempt to express the truth of the sacred, can do so only in metaphor, and will inevitably be misconstrued by ordinary people; and those that express more comprehensible ideas that are by the same degree temporal and subject to change and obsolescence. To regard such writings as beyond question is inevitably to descend into error, on the one hand by freezing into rigor one’s dim and faulty interpretation of a spiritual metaphor, and on the other hand by refusing to upgrade moral beliefs into more compassionate forms when a change in the times permits or requires such an upgrade.

So as I said, I’m not reading the Quran as scripture, because I don’t believe there is or can be any such thing. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.

Image credit: stevanovicigor / 123RF Stock Photo

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Crafting Religion: Awakening

Perhaps this is a good time to explain the distinction between what I mean by the words “religion” and “spirituality.” The two are related, but not identical. I’m also going to start from the position, which I believe, that religion has utility and is not something that should be dismissed and rejected in toto; for that reason I’m not going to equate it with dogmatism, priestly hierarchies, or mind-control, regarding these as diseases of religion rather than aspects of the healthy organism.

Spirituality is a state of mind, an attitude, a state of reverence and openness to wonder and so to the god sense. One may find this state of mind in a great many ways. Einstein spoke of spirituality quite often, but was not a religious man; his background was Jewish of course, but he was far from an observant Jew, nor did he practice any other religion by conversion. Yet he had a deep reverence towards the cosmos, and the god sense manifested for him as inspirations about the nature of reality which he wedded to mathematics and rigorous thinking to achieve scientific theories. People have had spiritual experiences outside religious contexts quite often. They arise when immersing oneself in nature, or in an alien culture; they can spring from sex and romantic love, from psychedelic drugs, from music; they can burst forth from philosophy, from science, from art. They can also arise in a religious context, of course, but their origin lies outside religion often enough that we cannot render the two into one.

Religion is a set of practices based in myth. The myths are metaphors about the nature of the cosmos and our own place in it and our own identity as conscious entities. The practices include ritual, behavioral disciplines, and mental exercises intended either to awaken the god sense or to live in accordance with accepted principles. While spirituality is a state of mind or state of consciousness, religion is a behavior or set of behaviors. The two are connected insofar as religion seeks to achieve (or, when twisted and perverted, to suppress) spirituality, but they are not the same thing. One may be spiritual without being religious. One may also be religious without being spiritual. Unfortunately, most religious people are exactly that.

I implied in the last post that crafting religion on the scale that’s needed requires a god sense that is awakened in all or most people. We can’t afford to rely on the teachings of a few prophets, people with awakened god sense telling the rest of us what to do. We must all become prophets. We must awaken the god sense in as many people as possible.

I’m not going to go into all of the methods and exercises employed in religious and occult traditions for the purpose of awakening the god sense in any depth here; those methods include prayer, meditation, chanting and mantra, breath control, movement, dance, sex, drugs, austerities, and on and on and on. One can find plenty of information about these exercises elsewhere and there’s no need to cover this old ground yet again. What I do want to talk about is the common denominator of all of them, the key that each method sometimes holds to the lock of consciousness — but not always. Because none of them always works, but there is a common factor involved whenever any of them does.

One of Jesus’ pithy sayings that Christians usually misunderstand, as they tend to misunderstand their faith’s ostensible founder most of the time, is this: In order to experience the Kingdom of Heaven (which was his term for the awakened god sense), one must be reborn and become as a little child again. There lies the key. I don’t think anyone else has ever said it quite that well.

What does it mean to be “as a little child”?

It means to be open and curious, hungry for learning, always exploring, taking in information ravenously. The antidote to the god sense is a closed-minded, cynical or dogmatic attitude, an attitude that one knows everything and has seen it all, a closing of one’s doors to the universe.

If we could remember our earliest childhood, I suspect we would find the god sense wide awake in all of us from birth until years later. It’s something we are born with — and something that usually shuts down in adolescence, when people struggle to be “adult” on the belief that adults know everything (which somehow coexists with the belief that those particular adults in charge of one’s upbringing know nothing), and so struggle to project the appearance of knowing it all. And yet even in adolescence the god sense contrives quite often to reappear, by way of awakened sexuality and the tendency to fall in love.

All of the methods taught in religions for awakening the god sense work when they push the mind out of its accustomed patterns of thought and into a state of openness. But many of them hold a danger: they can themselves become habitual and when that happens they lose their utility as far as awakening is concerned (though they still may be useful as mental disciplines in some cases, in service to the other purpose of religion).

The god sense is actually not difficult to awaken. It tends to be awake. It takes effort to close it down, but there are many aspects to our lives and society that apply that effort, or move us to do so. Rigid adherence to a system of belief is one of those barriers to the god sense. Doctrinaire religions are antithetical to spirituality, but so are doctrinaire politics and doctrinaire philosophy — doctrinaire anything, in fact. And so, while the methods of awakening employed in religious teaching can often be helpful, the most important thing we can do in terms of awakening the god sense is to not do something: not to be certain one already knows. It’s that uncertainty, that hunger to know and understand, that Jesus spoke of when he said one needs to be as a little child.

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