By Joanne Clendenen
So, this Jesus seems to think he's God, but he behaves and feels in very human fashion, too. Sounds a lot like the Greek gods I used to read about when I was 10. Now those were gods one could identify with! They loved, they fought, they manipulated each other and the humans. A lot like us, actually.
But Jesus was also different from the Greek gods in so many ways. Born a Jew in a Roman-ruled hierarchy, he stepped outside his culture rather regularly to espouse a very egalitarian set of social relations, and an internal, experiential and mystical relationship with God. Today, Iíd like to explore the concepts of Jesus as god and man, and give you an idea of the kind of Christ Iíd like to take with me into the third millennium since his birth.
The debate about the ultimate nature of Jesus, man or God, originated in the first millennium, shortly after his time on earth. The intellectual battle between the unitarian view of one God and Jesus as human prophet vs. the Gnostic view of Jesus as Christ-God culminated in what I see as a compromise called the Trinity.
The writings on Jesus covered quite a wide spectrum of belief in the 300s ce, but they didnít become a matter of church policy until after Emperor Constantine transformed Christianity from an underground sect to the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Council of Nicea was convened during this time to resolve many theological issues, most important of which was the nature of Jesus. The dilemmas as the early church fathers saw them were:
Dilemma #1: If Jesus is just a man, then Christianity is just another Jewish cult. If Jesus is God, then Christianity is not monotheistic anymore; maybe itís just another pagan cult. How do we make Christianity unique and preserve the monotheistic faith of Old Testament?
Dilemma #2: If Jesus is just a man, then how can he be our Lord and savior? How can he be the Son of God? If Jesus is just God, then he couldnít really suffer for our sins, so whatís the point of the crucifixion?
The Early Church answeróthe Trinity. Three entities in one. Three manifestations of one God, Yahweh. For other religions this isnít such a difficult concept. The Hindus have done the same with Brahma/Shiva/Vishnu. The difficult part isóJesus is man and God. If you are a Buddhist, it's not so difficult; we are all human and god- or spirit-like too. For the Jewish faith, it's very hard. Either you are man or God; there are no other options. You relate to God, but you are separate. Only Jesus gets to be both.
As you've probably guessed, in spite of all the church's attempts to preserve this trinitarian concept without debate, the unitarian view of Jesus as man, and the gnostic view of Jesus as pure God did not die, but simply went underground until the Renaissance. One of the problems with the church's view of Jesus as divine was that he had predicted an apocalypse within the lifetime of his disciples. And, by the Renaissance period, at least, it was rather clear that this wasn't going to happen right away. Western society had made it through the first millennium intact, in spite of the Muslims' attempts to transform the European religion into a purer form of monotheism again.
The Unitarian position returned during this period, along with the other aspects of the Reformation, to challenge the church on the nature of Jesus. It could be pointed out in the gospels that Jesus himself was ambivalent about his status (John 8: 53-58), or, the Unitarians claimed, perhaps people could have put words in his mouth. By the time of the Enlightenment period in Europe, there were groups who believed simply in the humanity of Jesus, and they emphasized his moral teachings rather than his divine power to save sinners. These Unitarians disliked the atonement position of the Church. Jesus did not die to set us free from a wrathful God, but to set us free from our own moral failings to ìbe the best we can beî. His job was to awaken our sense of moral responsibility. This view of Jesus formed the original basis for the classic Unitarian Christians' belief system. Unitarian Christians now cover a rather wider range of relationship with Jesus, from the classic emphasis on his moral teachings to a more mystical relationship with Christ, to Christ as a symbol for social action. I was impressed with this broader view of Jesusí role, particularly the Jesus-as-social-justice-inspiration path. It seemed a natural evolution of his human relations message of love for our fellow humans.
On the other hand, I thought, if we concentrate only on Jesus' moral teachings, we are taking Christianity back to its Jewish roots, where right relationship with God consists in basic faith in one God and right action in the world to maintain our side of God's covenant. This emphasis fits in very well with my humanist side, but I feel a certain mystical something missing.
The traditional Christian churches of today still emphasize the sin and salvation relationship with Jesus and God. They seem to seek more than a simple covenant of good works with God; they want a personal love relationship with Him, a mystical union based on being forgiven by God for their sins. They still seem to believe that we start out unworthy to be with a God who is separate from us, and that the only way to get that mystical relationship going is to remember that we are nothing when compared to God, so that God can enter us in the form of the Holy Spirit to guide us to a better life. This is the message I heard as a child in the Catholic church. I still get this feeling of an inferiority complex coming onÖ.how can I be one with God if I can never be truly equal to him in any sense?
The view of Jesus as pure spirit, sometimes called the Gnostic view because of its prevalence in the writings called the Gnostic Gospels, seems to have been reborn in some of the Unity churches and in the New Age movements in general. This Christ consciousness is considered to be the present form of the man who was called Jesus 2000 years ago. Jesus may very well have suffered and died way back then, but now he is a powerful loving energy that we can access through meditation, contemplation or prayer. The message here is that we are all worthy to receive the benefits of this spiritual connection and pass the love on. The trick for me is to remember that although turning inward to discover one's own divinity can be very self-fulfilling, the ultimate end is to then turn outward again, in compassion to embrace the world.
Which Jesus would I take with me as my traveling companion into the third millennium?
Well, I think that the trinitarian Jesus, the one who saved me from my sins by dying on the cross, would not be the best companion for a new age filled with opportunities for human growth in a positive sense. A concentration on sin, death, guilt and shame has actually hampered my personal growth and my ability to act with love. I believe that my fears and guilt have led to more pain for me and for those around me. I donít think itís made me a better, more whole person. I think I can still be morally responsible without the fear of God's or anyone else's judgment hanging over my head. If I am worthy to be loved, then it is easier to love.
I will take both the human and divine essences of Jesus with me on this journey, but in a more positive way than the traditional Christian religions seem to do.
For a human society trying to remember that all humans deserve respect and aid, regardless of their background or social status, Jesus' teachings would be valuable guides along the way. We can remember the Samaritan Story, where generosity and help did not depend on the moral or social status of the victim; the unconditional forgiveness by the father of his prodigal son; and Jesus' respect for the worthy spirit of the socially lowly Samaritan woman. He rewarded both faith and good works and he hated hypocrisy, something I have always identified with. My favorite teaching of his reflects our UU principle of tolerance and runs something like this (Luke 7: 36-38):
Be compassionate, as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Pardon, and you shall be pardoned. Give, and it shall be given to you. Good measure pressed down, shaken together, running over, will they pour into the fold of your garment. For the measure you measure with will be measured back to you.
I have found this advice to be the most transformative for my life, particularly when I apply it consistently. I have spent the past year letting many of my judgments of others fall by the wayside, although hypocrisy and negative judgment by others still bother me. I try to remember that everyone deserves my love and respect, no matter where they are in their own journey. I may not stay real close to people who are judgmental, for instance, but I will strive to show compassion from a place of loving detachment. Not an easy thing to do, sometimes, but thatís where accessing the spirit of Jesus, or my Higher Self, comes in to reinforce my intent to be that greatest version of the grandest vision of who I am.
It is not enough for me, then, to simply do the right thing, whatever that may be for me. I want to truly feel the presence of this love which translates into those right actions. I want to feel the spirit of Jesus in my heart, and not because I believe that I am not worthy, but because he has been there all along. I don't need to let Jesus in, I simply need to let his spirit, which is my own divine spark, flow out from me in all my relationships with the world. In order to find that spirit, I will need to go within, to find time for true contemplation, and to believe that I am worthy to house that divine light, just as he did. When I was a Catholic, many years ago, I never did "go through the motions" like so many of my fellows. I couldn't figure out why the born-again Christians thought I wasn't "saved". I'd been with Jesus all my life. When I was in that church with the stained-glass dome, I could see his light and feel his presence as real. As he said to the rabbis of his day (John 10: 34-38):
Is it not written in your law,
"I have said, You are gods"?
If it calls those men gods
to whom God's word was addressed--
and Scripture cannot lose its force--
do you claim that I blasphemed
when, as he whom the Father consecrated
and sent into the world,
I said, "I am God's Son"?
If I do not perform my Father's works,
put no faith in me.
But if I do perform them,
even though you put no faith in me,
put faith in these works,
so as to realize what it means
that the Father is in me
and I in Him.
Although I felt his presence, I still saw him only in the dome, and not inside myself. I could not see my own god-self. The Catholic Church discourages this attitude because they would have no control over gods, would they? So, I eventually left that particular sanctuary of spirit and went on my humanist quest for meaning. Something was always missing, though, an element of mystical experience that I couldn't find just following the moral precepts of humanism. In my current spiritual journey, I feel as if I have awakened from a long sleep and stepped out the door to a new journey, on a path that I turned away from a long time ago. On this path, I have met up again with the spirit of Jesus, only this time, it wasn't in a church, but through a mirror. I am taking that spirit, as well as the teachings that go with it, with me into the next millennium. With these tools of living in the now and feeling the spiritual energy all around and inside me, I can approach the world with true compassion, and compassion, as Jesus put it so eloquently, is the gateway to the love that can transform ourselves and the world.
John 15: 9-12
As the Father has loved me,
so I have loved you,
Live on in my love.
You will live in my love if you keep my commandments,
even as I have kept my Father's commandments,
And live in his love.
All this I tell you
that my joy may be yours
and your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment:
Love one another
as I have loved you.