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Showing posts from January, 2015

The Nature of Jesus, part 2: The Jesus Stories

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Professor Larry Hurtado, an extremely well-respected historian and New testament language scholar, has referred to the Gospels as “Jesus Books.” This is a great name for the stories written by Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, because it immediately puts them in their proper context: stories. Stories don’t have to be true. They often use fictional characters for dramatic effect or to create meaning. Stories often have a moral attached to them. Stories are parables, and the Gospels are indeed parables explaining a wide range of theological and moral ideas. The gospels even move into the realm of deep spiritual mysticism. All of them are firmly rooted in Jewish theology, culture, and their socioeconomic position within Roman society. The writing style of the Gospels is typical of the Roman biographical style of the era (which rarely had anything to do with actual historical events), and the Jewish practice of recording the teachings of great Rabbis.

The word “gospel” itself simply means “goo…

The Nature of Jesus, part 1

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One of the great debates within Christianity is the nature of Jesus Christ. Was he a human? Was he God incarnate? Was he both? Does it make any difference? Is it a question anyone cares about? Followers of and believers in Jesus have wracked their brains with these questions for thousands of years.

Shortly after the Romans murdered Jesus, his followers began thinking of him as more than human. It’s important to recognize just how devastating Jesus’ death was to his followers. Many of them (not all of them) believed Jesus was the promised Messiah of their Bible—the Hebrew Bible, the only Bible in existence at the time. How could the Messiah be killed, and by human hands no less? The psychological trauma caused by Jesus’ crucifixion cannot be underestimated. The disciples’ worldview was shattered. Could the reports of Jesus appearing after death, the empty tomb, all the mythological trappings of his story, have been psychosomatic?

How you answer that question says a lot about your Christo…

On Consciousness

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What is Consciousness and why does it exist? This question is what scientists and philosophers refer to as “The Hard Problem.”

Humans have been pondering what it means “to be” seemingly since we developed written language—which means we likely started asking the question long before. Does consciousness set us apart from other animals? From plants? A famous question posed by David Chalmers, one of the leaders in the field of neuroscience is, “Why are we aware that we are aware?” In other words, why did we evolve into conscious beings, rather than robots or mindless zombies? Why do we consider what it means to be human, rather than simply going about our business eating and procreating, the way other animals do? And importantly, if we are more than automatons—fleshy machines, can a machine become conscious? Humans have certainly evolved consciousness, yet we too were once simply self-replicating machines.

Modern philosophers began seriously chewing on this question in the 1600s, when Rene…

Becoming One, part 1

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In Jesus’ time, people separated God, in the heavenly realms (such as Mt. Olympus or the more general “heaven”), and humans, down here on earth. For them, God (or the gods) was an extraterrestrial superbeing who blessed or punished us, depending on which side of the bed God awoke any given day. This ancient and limited view of God is still pervasive today. God, the alien scientist, is represented in pop movies like “Prometheus” or the upcoming “Jupiter Ascending.” These and other films riff on the Frankenstein mythos. Now, it’s entirely possible, I suppose, our planet was seeded by an alien civilization, but to me that has nothing to do with the nature of God, which transcends any sort of physical reality—alien or otherwise. Thinking of God as an alien scientist—or any being outside our very own being, is a mistake of the dual mind.

Jesus, like other mystics before him, saw past this dual mindset. It is not that God is a superbeing, and we are something else. For Jesus, the substance o…

Follow the leader, part 3

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Now that we understand the human propensity to deify great people, and we understand the context of Jesus’ ministry within a civilization in which the Emperor was called a son of God (which is the way people referred to the Caesars), we can see how Jesus went from being an enlightened, mystical Rabbi preaching connectedness, to the one and only literal Son of God. I do not think his earliest followers believed this the way many Christians do today, just as most citizens of the Roman Empire didn’t think Julius or Augustus were literally descendants of Venus. But proclaiming Jesus Son of God over and about the Roman Emperor? That would have been an incredible act of courage—and sedition.

There is power in understanding Jesus as Son of God, but it is not the power that has now become “traditional” in the United States. Originally, this was a political statement. It’s quite probable, based on both biblical and extra-biblical sources, that Jesus resisted this label. He may have known it w…

Follow the leader, part 2

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Humans have a way of deifying leaders. In the oldest cultures for which we have archaeological records; kings and their families were direct descendants of gods. These ancient gods took many forms, yet within their “heavenly” families we read stories about the sort of issues that face any powerful family—and the struggles facing any growing civilization. How do governments and citizens share responsibility? What is the responsibility of leaders to their constituencies? What are the rights of the people in a society? How do we define ourselves as a society? These are questions we continue to struggle with today.

As time wore on, the idea that leaders were somehow related to gods took firm hold in human imaginations. Pharaohs, then later Roman Emperors, were said to be descendants of gods. Today, we hear this idea and think the people of those eras took the concept of humans descended from gods literally. We read stories about Hercules and Achilles, even about Julius Caesar, and the stor…
Follow the leader, part 1

What is the point of faith if not to participate in changing the world for the better? Once fully cognizant of their connection to the Infinite, what do Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed (in chronological order), go about doing? They change the world by standing up to the oppressive rulers and systems of their time. Moses gathers his people and rallies them against Egypt. Once he is awakened to the suffering of the people just outside his palace gates, Siddhartha (eventually Buddha) relinquishes his inheritance and birthright as king.

Jesus also senses this Oneness with God, and it compels him to stand up against the Roman Empire in much the same way Moses rebelled against Egypt. But whereas Moses was a warrior, Jesus pushes for peaceful non-compliance with the systemic evils of Rome. Jesus, in his enlightened Buddha state, sees the foolishness of bloodshed. He understands the ancient Jewish mystical view that violence only begets violence—a lesson Moses learn…

Into the mystic, part 4

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My spiritual journey has probably been like many of yours. I was an inquisitive kid with an almost insatiable appetite for reading. I was and remain, skeptical of anything I am told is “absolute truth.” That phrase has me scrambling to do research faster than a firefighter runs to the hook and ladder when the station alarm sounds. After Jesus claims he came to testify to the truth, and that anyone interested in the truth sides with him, Pilate retorts, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38). This is a deeply philosophical question we must all constantly ask ourselves, especially concerning our spiritual beliefs.

One of the most powerful tools in my quest for truth has been meditation. When this ancient practice was introduced to me, I discovered a connection to the Infinite, the Holy, to God that I didn’t even know was possible. Everything before meditation had been an intellectual quest—which is an extremely important spiritual foundation. Yet, in meditation I felt the presence of God flowi…

Into the mystic, part 3

It turns out the Universe is accelerating. This has caused scientists to rethink a few theories, because for a long time the understanding was that the universe was slowing down due to gravitational pull. We don’t know what is propelling the universe to reach ever farther into our four-dimensional reality (and beyond), but scientists have a theory that involves things called dark energy and dark matter. This is the stuff that, although we can’t see it, we sense is there, holding the universe together. Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like what people of faith call God? The being that holds all reality together? Is it that great a leap to imagine that God is the spiritual stuff that holds the universe together? Perhaps rather than calling the spaces between the physical objects of this world dark matter, we should call it God.

The other major difference between the theory of dark energy and our concept of God is that we believe God is conscious. I would suggest that God is also the energ…

Into the mystic, part 2

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Imagine what it might be like to live in a more mystical world. I don’t mean a superstitious world, I mean a world more understanding and accepting of the idea that perhaps there is something more underlying reality than we can understand with our physical senses. In fact, part of the mystical journey is accepting that ineffable feeling that there is something more.

We can sense this mystical truth when we stop and quiet our minds. The famous story about Buddha under the Bodhi tree is a perfect example of our ability to connect with the Infinite One. It also reflects the inner conflict faced by anyone on this spiritual trek. Jesus often goes off to be alone for centering time (Luke 5:16, Mark 1:35, etc.) battling his demons the same as Buddha under the Bodhi tree, 500 years earlier. Moses goes to mountains, Noah, and Mohammed go to caves. We all struggle with Mara: desire, hatred, ignorance, the inner demons that keep us separated from the truth of our Oneness with God and each other.

E…

Into the mystic, part 1

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We’re all familiar with the famous story of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. Obviously, this is not meant to be a historical, literal story. It is a deep and powerful allegory. For centuries, theologians and philosophers have wrestled with the meaning of this story, and Christianity has largely adopted the idea that because of Adam and Eve’s transgression, humans fell out of God’s favor. Eventually, God sends Jesus as a sort of sacrificial lamb to right our relationship.

However, this interpretation was made before the advent of evolutionary theory. Paul, Augustine, and other church leaders who adopted the idea of humankind’s fall from grace thought humans were created whole cloth, separately from the other creatures. We know this is not true. We know that we have evolved over millions and millions of years, everything on the planet from atomic particles that fell to earth from the stars. All life started with single-celled, asexual organisms, and over the billions of…

Divesting ourselves of religious baggage

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an issue with organized religion. There are a lot of reasons for this. My parents came from divergent religious backgrounds. My dad was Roman Catholic and my mom was Jewish. They met and married in the early 1960s, when most Christians were still being incorrectly taught that “the Jews” killed Jesus (it was the Romans, for insurrection). Fortunately, they both came from families that saw past this sort of lie, and my parents were respectful enough that I attended both church and synagogue, although neither regularly. Not that it would have mattered anyway, because at that time the Catholic church was entirely in Latin, and the synagogue was entirely in Hebrew. What child could possible understand what was going on?

Other things happened throughout my life that soured me on organized religion, but I kept having what I can only describe as mystical experiences. I sensed, and still do, that God is a force moving throughout all creation. I think Geor…

Disorganizing Religion

I call myself a Christian because I think of myself as a student of Jesus, who was a teacher and spiritual mystic. I have found his teachings to be a powerful path to connection with the Infinite Mystery of the Universe. I find the stories of his life an inspiration and a call to act as a presence of love and non-violent resistance in a corrupt world. I love that he took the religion of his day and turned it on its head.

I am also a Jew. I was born Jewish, and I respect the deep mystery of God that Judaism teaches (which is the same mystery Jesus taught). I do not think being Jewish and being Christian are mutually exclusive. It certainly wasn’t a problem for Jesus and his earliest followers, every single one of them Jewish. Remember, Jesus didn’t consider himself a Christian—there was no such thing then. Jesus was a faithful Jew, attempting to act with integrity to God in every action he took. No matter what we call ourselves today, and no matter what we think about the life and divin…

A solid faith foundation never discriminates

Today, we mourn with our brothers and sisters in France as we remember the satirists who were senselessly murdered at the hands of people whose faith is so shallow they can’t take a joke. If we’re so sensitive about our faith that we can’t laugh about it’s shortcomings, then we aren’t nearly introspective enough.

A spiritual journey requires constant questioning and repositioning. People outside our faith who poke holes in our theology, and even make fun of the things we believe are important pieces of our journey. Satirists help us see the most ludicrous aspects of religion and the world in which we live. They help us lose the trappings of religion so we might become more faithful to God, rather than blindly following a Pope or Caliph. Satire is intended to help us think more deeply about whether or not the things we hold dear are making us the peaceful, loving, compassionate, forgiving beings every religion on the planet claims is our true birthright.

The foundation we build our faith…

Laying a new foundation, part 3

We’ve laid science and history as the cornerstones of our 21st Century faith. They intersect with scripture and inform the way we read those ancient stories. Perhaps most importantly, our modern scientific understanding of nature and our incredible advances in archaeology have helped us understand that the Bible is ancient literature, like Homer’s Odyssey or the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which influenced Genesis.

The Bible is not a magic book that lays out the will of God. It does not predict the future, and its interpretation of the past is extremely biased by the circumstances of the people who wrote it. This does not make the Bible worthless. In fact, understanding these facts about the Bible makes it an extremely valuable book. In its stories, we read about the struggles of other people just like us. People with jobs and debt, people with hungry mouths to feed at home who felt they were overtaxed and underserved by their government. We read about people who have mystical experiences …

Laying a new foundation, part 2

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For thousands of years the foundation of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) has been scripture. From the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament to the Qur’an, the words of our ancestors inform how we view our concept of God, our relationship to God, and the structures we create to experience God in our midst.

Unfortunately, over time these philosophical ponderings have come to be known as “the Word of God, infallible and inerrant.” Generally speaking, what this means is that “if you don’t accept that these stories mean what I say they mean, then you are condemned to a lifetime of ruin.” When I say this is a modern concept, it’s because the people who wrote these stories thousands of years ago never, ever would have said such a thing.

Remember: In the ancient world, most people could neither read nor write. They were not stupid or ignorant people. They were busy providing for their families and their neighborhoods. The only people schooled in reading and writing were …

Laying a new foundation, part 1

People of faith are at a crossroads. Advances in science and archaeology are reshaping the way we think about our past, our present, our future, and our concept of God. Stories we used to read, presuming they were somehow grounded in truth, turn out to be more literature than literal. Rediscovering the allegory of the stories in the Bible, understanding them the way the original audiences likely did, requires diligence. The hard work pays off in a deep and unshakeable faith. Rather than having to defend the Bible as fact, we can concentrate on the meaning of the stories, the way the ancient people who wrote them and told them to each other did. Nobody in the ancient world thought God literally created the world in seven human days. Rediscovering the metaphor of these creation myths and juxtaposing them with modern cosmological concepts, reveals a God that is even more extensive and intricately woven with our being than interpreting those stories literally could ever allow us to imagin…