Friday, 25 July 2014

The Dream of Jesus

I like to ask the question, “What got Jesus out of bed every day?”
It is clear that his daily concern focused on this world, for a better human community, and on affirming God’s presence with people, not on the next world or on any belief in God-absent-from-people or on God withholding forgiveness from people.

Jesus was clearly concerned with helping people think differently about God and about themselves in relationship with God if ever his dream for humanity was to be realized. His dream is clear for all of us to see: how would humanity conduct itself if people were aware they gave human expression to the Breath/ Spirit/Reality of God within, among and around them?  Another way of expressing this in the terminology of Jesus’ time would be: “How would people live if they could be aware that the same ‘Spirit of the Lord God’ active in Jesus is present and active in their lives?”

It was this dream that drove Jesus to challenge people to conversion, to change their thinking and their imagination about God, so that they would experience God as a gracious, compassionate Presence, accessible to everyone in everyday actions of kindness and human decency.
He clearly recognized that only with this conversion could people ever be empowered to take responsibility to establish “God’s reign” in human affairs.

That’s what got him out of bed.

We can see from his preaching and his actions that Jesus envisaged a human community characterized by:

Radical equality; radical service of others.
Freedom from dehumanizing behavior
An expansive concept of and concern for “neighbor”
Concern for justice; care for the underprivileged
Everyone empowered with a sense of dignity and the willingness to establish “God’s reign” on earth.
Belief in the Divine present in all people regardless of race, religion, culture.
No religious superstition or magic; no fear of God; no dependence on middle management to “bring” God to people.
No violent responses to problems.

It is clear, then, what it means and what is required to be a follower of Jesus.
It is clear what the task of “ecclesia” is, in its many shapes and form.

To follow the dream/teaching of Jesus is to commit oneself to and to work for the most profound changes in our religious, political, economic, social endeavors.

Our task is to give the best possible human expression to God’s presence here, within, among, all around us.

Testing "revelation"

As some responses to the last blog pointed out, intuition in itself, yet alone when identified with divine revelation, is a very broad reality, very difficult to tie down. It is a reality that needs to be tested if people are not to proclaim recklessly that the judgments, decisions or actions based on their intuition or the ‘inner voice’ they hear stand above any critique.
So, how might we test intuition, revelation, the ‘divine voice’ embedded in every human?
As I wrote in the previous blog, Jesus believed the same ‘divine’ reality within him was in the people listening to him. He not only wanted to set them free from whatever restricted or strangled that reality within them, he also gave clear guidance for how anyone might recognize that divine reality in themselves and in others.
He insisted:
You are not to be proud-hearted, elitist, exclusive, or to set yourself over others.
You are to mourn with those who mourn.
You are to work for justice; you are to be of service to others.
You must be neighbor to all.  You must be inclusive of all people.
You must never be violent or seek to dominate or rule over others.
Your intent must be ‘pure’, free from seeking power and prestige.
You must be willing to stand up for what you believe.
Believe that the ‘kingdom of God’ is here, within and among you; it is in your hands and in your power - and it is your responsibility - to bring it to expression in the human community.
There are some clear implications from Jesus’ preaching about the ‘kingdom of God’. On the one hand, people are to be set free from any belief that they need middle management to bring God’s presence to them, On the other hand, no one should think of themselves as bringing God’s presence to others; Jesus never ministered to others under that delusion.
There is always the possibility of self-delusion when someone wants to follow the promptings of their ‘inner voice’. I suggest that Jesus’ criteria create an objective benchmark and prove an excellent checklist for anyone wanting to evaluate, integrate and act on what they have ‘heard ‘from within.
When we start to think about ‘divine revelation’ as giving expression to a reality within all people rather than coming from a God external to humanity, scripture becomes problematic.
Consider how much of scripture, heralded as ‘divine revelation’, fails the criteria of Jesus dismally. Think of one ethnic group claiming to be ‘God’s own people’ and how divisive and elitist that claim is. Think of a new religious movement claiming to have exclusive access to God’s dwelling place. Think of women being suppressed and not having a voice in society. Think of a God ordering violent actions. Think of cultural norms and man-made community laws elevated to ‘God’s law’. Think of punishments listed in the name of God for violations of these laws. Think of adherents to a religion who generally believed that God could not possibly be near the likes of them. Think of the idea that humanity was said to be ‘dead in its sins’, disconnected from God, and in need of a savior figure for redemption. And think of one of the most foundational ideas in our scriptures, that God resides in the heavens above the earth.
Much of what is claimed to be ‘divine revelation’ is a man-made system of community control. It is not inclusive of all people. Rather it serves the claims of unique religious institutional identity, and of power and absolute authority - in the name of God. Should we be surprised that Jesus thought it all needed a total makeover if the ‘kingdom of God’ was to be established? Perhaps we should not be surprised that it took less than a century for Jesus’ insights to be pushed aside in favor of a grandiose theological schema that created a new religion which eventually claimed absolute control over people’s access to God and over their thinking and religious practice. All in the name of ‘divine revelation’, of course.
Theology also becomes problematic when we consider ‘revelation’ in a new way.
Consider Jesus’ criteria above. This is not theology. You cannot take this teaching and turn it into doctrine. It is not tied to a particular time in history. It is not dependent on a particular worldview. It is not limited to one cultural or ethnic group. No one has control over these insights.  They express a universal truth about humanity and how we should live. They are true for all time.
The prophets spoke a similar message, as did men and women in other places and cultures throughout human history. Here, I believe, is genuine revelation, the human expression of a ‘divine voice or presence’ embedded in all of us, speaking of possibilities based on co-operation, compassion, care and respect for all.
Now consider the writings of Paul, held up to Christians as divine revelation, and as such, never to be questioned.  There is, however, a fundamental difference between Jesus and Paul that needs to be noted in terms of ‘revelation’. Paul gives us ideas, a big picture of reality as he understood it in the first century.  Paul’s teaching can be, and was, turned into doctrine. His teaching is reliant on a religious culture and on a worldview that are not ours today. As such, it does not stand the test of time. Paul’s teaching led a new religious movement to articulate a theology of disconnection from God and a Christology about Jesus who became the Christ figure who redeemed humanity from that disconnection. It led to a new religion claiming unique access to God in and through belief in the risen Jesus.
And this is ‘divine revelation’ never to be questioned?
No, it isn’t. It is human thinking trying to make sense of religious questions and ideas at a particular time in human history. It should be respected as such, because at any time in history we are challenged to make sense of our relationship with ‘God’ with the data we have on hand. But I’d want to understand ‘revelation’  as something more timeless, as a reality like a stream running through all human history, a stream that everyone in every place and every time can dip into and find what is timeless wisdom about how we humans can give best expression to the divine within us all.

I think Jesus wanted all his hearers to strip off and swim in that stream.

Re-thinking "Revelation"

Vatican II never questioned the traditional understanding of “revelation”.  It is most likely that no bishop since Vatican II has questioned it either. It is truly an amazing state of affairs that given the extraordinary wealth of scientific knowledge showered upon us in the past fifty years, that no voice has been raised or has been permitted to be raised in the Catholic Church suggesting it is time to rethink how  “divine revelation” works. And I do not want to suggest that Catholicism is alone in this.
The traditional understanding of “revelation” requires belief in a God, external to our world, who intervenes from wherever this God is thought to be located. As recently as 1992, The Catechism of the Catholic Church presented the world with the understanding of God wanting “to compose the sacred books” and choosing “certain men” to write “whatever he wanted written and no more” (#106)
In the worldview of more than two thousand years ago, the prophets heard their heavenly-based God “speak” to them the message God wanted “his people” to hear. The prophets spoke with certainty and intensity: “Thus said the Lord God to me … This is what the Lord God wants…  The Lord of hosts has sworn … Woe to the rebellious says the Lord … For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel…“
“Thus says the Lord God…” is repeated over and over in some of the prophetical books. (e.g. Jeremiah, chapters 30-32)
Today when we are not imagining “God” as an external heavenly deity, but rather as the mysterious source and sustainer of everything that exists, present and active everywhere, we are challenged to turn our understanding of “revelation” upside down or back to front, or better,  from out to in. In other words, we should consider that the “voice” the prophets heard did not come from an external source, a God in the heavens, but from internally, from the mysterious source of all, present, embedded, active within them, as it is in every human.
Another phrase that some of the prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel and Micah, use, may help us embrace this shift in thinking:  “The Word of the Lord came to me…“  Today we can imagine that the teaching, the path to be followed, came from personal reflection, from a moment of sudden insight, or in one of those waking from sleep moments when something dawns with surprising clarity or from a deep inner conviction or “knowing” as in “I just know, don’t ask me how, that this needs to be done or I need to do this.”
The word we commonly use for this phenomenon is “intuition”, a way of perception and knowing that is like an inner voice, an inner guidance. Carl Jung wrote that, “Intuition enables us to divine the possibilities of a situation.”  Perhaps we could play with his words and say, “Intuition enables us to know the divine possibilities of a situation.”
From this perspective we can see that “divine revelation” is within all of us. We can move from the traditional understanding that it comes from an external source and that it is granted to a privileged few or a privileged group. This thinking, of course, is not acceptable to the institutional custodians of “divine revelation” who consider they have a God-given mandate to let the world know the thoughts and opinions of an external deity.
Jesus knew better. He knew what was in people. He wanted to free people from whatever prevented them from knowing what he knew and experienced. Only with such freedom could “divine possibilities” ever shape the future of humanity.
Albert Einstein wrote, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

If we could learn to understand “divine revelation” in the way suggested in these paragraphs, religion could regain, treasure and promote the sacred gift, and help all people come to know what Jesus wanted everyone to know: the “divine voice” is within all of us. 

A New Start to Theology

Theology always starts with people trying to making sense of the prevailing worldview. The Hebrew people, in the centuries before Jesus, started their theology in the worldview which they had inherited from people who had lived centuries before “the Hebrews” came into existence.  It was a worldview of gods and mythical stories about how humanity came into existence, and stories that attempted to explain death, suffering and evil.
The Hebrew people developed their understanding of a Supreme Heavenly God from these foundations and also from the need to shape their own unique identity. So they gave us “The Hebrew Bible”.
The early Christians, being Jews, naturally built their understanding of “salvation” and Jesus’ role in it, in light of the Hebrew Scriptures and its understanding of God. As Christianity developed, it added to this understanding the notion of humanity disconnected from the heavenly God. 
 Consequently, all of Christianity’s doctrinal statements about Jesus' role in human affairs dealt with how he was able to re-establish connection with God and win access to God’s heavenly dwelling place.
In the 21st century, theology should start over again. It should start with the effort to make sense of the prevailing worldview.  It is no longer a worldview dominated by gods and mythical stories about how humanity came into existence.
If we held in abeyance all the theological ideas developed in that old worldview and used the contemporary worldview as the starting point for theological reflection, what might emerge as we contemplate the reality of a universe with billions of galaxies?
If we want to believe in a Mysterious reality we call God, what does scientific data suggest about where this Mystery is, and about how this Mysterious reality operates throughout the universe?
If we let the data speak for itself, I cannot imagine that we would draw from it the  notion of a localized deity overseeing the universe. Rather, the data would more likely lead us to acknowledge that this Mystery is present and active everywhere .
The good news to be drawn from this starting point is that there can be no disconnection from this Mystery! Disconnection makes no sense.  What data could possibly lead us to seriously entertain notions of disconnection from the Mystery that charges and holds in existence everything that exists!
What data about the origin of planet Earth and how life developed here could possibly lead us to take seriously any story of a “fall” from a state of paradise when humans emerged! There is no such data.
The new, contemporary, starting point for theology would lead us firstly to the good news of a Presence active everywhere.  It would lead us to deep appreciation of this Presence manifesting in human form on this wonderful planet. It would provide us with a story that includes everyone, regardless of race, culture or religious beliefs.
This start to theology would turn upside down Christianity’s proclaimed need for a “savior” to reconnect with an overseeing deity, to win forgiveness from this god  for our sins,  to “save the world”, and to become the focal point for the future unfolding of the whole universe.

What, then, of Jesus?  If we follow this starting point, as I propose to do in future blogs, we can discover what Jesus really was about and why his message is so affirming, empowering, challenging and important today.

Leaping Theologians

Leaping Theologians
I find myself amazed by many Catholic theologians who consider themselves immersed in the "new universe story" or in "evolutionary consciousness". I'm amazed at their readiness to make huge leaps from the scientific data they are considering, and wonder of wonders, are able to land with clear statements of belief about the Trinitarian nature of "God" and/or with statements about "Christ" as the focal point of evolutionary development, or  about "Christ" as the Reality drawing the whole universe into some sort of completion.
It's time to say in non-theological terms, "Give me a break!" 
Rather than reading Catholic/Christian doctrine/beliefs into this incredible data we have at our disposal, we should be serious, thorough, honest, and open about allowing this new knowledge to take us where it will.
But this is not happening.
Instead, most Catholic theologians I read impose onto the data preconceived and highly respected notions of Revelation, of a personal Deity, of a trinitarian God, and of a Christ figure who saved the world.
Is it not possible - maybe even likely from the data - that all those preconceived, prepackaged and never-to-be-questioned notions being brought to the data have no relevance anymore?
Is it not possible - maybe even most likely from the data - that we need to articulate a totally new story, a new understanding, about the Ultimate Mystery that gives birth to the universe, about what it means to be human, and about Jesus and ourselves as human expressions of that Ultimate Mystery?
I sense that we have barely begun this necessary and wonderful task of theological exploration. We are far too concerned with putting new data into old wineskins.  

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Christ? What happened to Jesus?

We are so accustomed to the name “Jesus Christ”,  and to using the word “Christ” in place of “Jesus”, that it seems unthinkable to question whether we should continue to link “Christ” with Jesus.

Even though the meaning of “Christ” is fairly clear and obvious, the word may be the most misunderstood, misused, and misleading word in Christianity.

The word comes from translating the Hebrew word, Masiah (“messiah”) which means “anointed”, with the Greek word for “anointed”, Khrist├│s. Jesus, then, was nominated in the New Testament as God’s anointed one, the “messiah” or “the Christ”.

For two thousand years Christianity has celebrated and honored Jesus as “the Christ”. There has been no more important theological domain in the Christian Church than “Christology”, the theological understanding of Jesus as “the Christ”.  Christology gave rise to the most vehement and disruptive disputes and divisions in the Church. It gave us the Nicene Creed.  Consequently, Christology, with its precise and technical language explaining how Jesus alone is “the Christ” and who and what that means he is, has long been the measure of orthodoxy.

Christology is a field of study tightly controlled and protected by Church authority, not only because of what it says about Jesus, but perhaps even more so because it is used to give meaning and identity and purpose to the Church as an institution. The Church, supposedly, was founded by “the Christ” for a specific task. And, in keeping with its Christology, the institutional Church sees itself as uniquely appointed by God to lead all people to God.  It is no wonder Roman Catholic leadership keeps very tight control over Christological thinking. There is much at stake if traditional Christology is allowed to be questioned.

Yet there is much to be questioned – and discarded – if our understanding of Jesus’ importance to the contemporary world is to reach beyond the narrow, elitist claims of institutional Christianity.

 The heart of the problem is that “Christ” and all the theology that goes with the word belong to a religious paradigm and an understanding of the cosmos that do not fit with contemporary questions about God or with contemporary data about our universe, or with contemporary efforts to understand the links between God-Jesus-universe-ourselves.

The most basic questions confronting theology about a God “choosing” a Messiah or Christ figure to do a specific task are rarely raised publicly for fear of offending Church authority.

 Yet, in the light of what we now know about our universe, it would seem an obvious and necessary task for institutional Christianity to examine Christian theology based on the notion that a Personal God, ruling from heaven, reacted strongly to a supposed fault by the first human beings, cut off access to “himself” and then mapped out a “plan of salvation” necessitating intervention from heaven, with God anointing someone, the Christ, for the task.

It would seem an obvious and necessary task to examine the idea that before the time of Jesus our cosmos and all of humanity was somewhat Spirit deprived and that only through a chosen person, a messiah, a “Christ” figure ascending into the heavens, could humanity have access to God’s presence or would God’s Spirit be released upon the world.

It would seem an obvious and necessary task to examine whether Jesus in his preaching about the kingdom of God revealed any indication whatever that God’s presence with people was dependent on him fulfilling a task. Did Jesus think he was winning access to a God who had withdrawn from them or did Jesus think he was opening people’s minds and hearts to the reality of God-always-with-them? This is a simple and basic question – and yet, it makes a significant difference to Christology, to Ecclesiology and to Sacramental Theology depending which way you answer it. Traditional Christian Christology defends the proposition that Jesus uniquely won access to God, access lost through human sin. It staunchly defends the proposition that “eternal life” with God is only made possible by Jesus being “the Christ”, chosen by God to fulfill a specific task. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it quite clear what was in God’s mind and what the task of “the Christ” was: “The Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself.” (#614)

 It would seem an obvious and necessary task to examine whether Jesus believed that God’s forgiveness in any way was dependent on Jesus doing anything. Is it possible, or likely, or even as clear as daylight, that Jesus believed that God was by nature forgiving?
Yet traditional Christology makes God’s forgiveness conditional on someone on this planet in a cosmic nowhere doing something. Isn’t that just a little bit odd, just a little bit too constructed to fit in with the notion of “the Christ” accomplishing a task?

Progressive Christian thinkers are not free of problems either.

There is a stream of progressive Christian thought, based on St Paul and often following Teilhard de Chardin, that sees itself freed from the fall-redemption Christology. It often promotes an understanding of a “cosmic Christ” in place of a Christ figure who repairs the sin of Adam. The emphasis in this theology is not on a story of an original fault, a story encased in a very limited understanding of the cosmos. Rather, the focus is on contemporary understanding of the size of the universe and the evolutionary development of life on earth. In this context, “the Christ” assumes new meaning and a far bigger role. The Christ is associated with God in the act of creation and with whatever God’s intent for the universe may be. Christ is the beginning and the end. Everything that exists has its beginning in “the Christ” and will come to its final fulfillment in “the Christ”. This “cosmic Christ” thinking marks a quantum leap from any understanding “messiah” had in Hebrew thinking – and in fact only came into prominence in the twentieth century in light of what is known today about evolutionary development.
Yet in some ways, this progressive thought is akin to putting new wine into old wineskins. It is often a case of articulating an understanding of “Christ” within the framework of a “new story” about the universe and its origins and evolutionary development while at the same time remaining rooted (as Teilhard was) in classical, traditional Christological foundations, namely:

·                     a personal God with a plan for the universe,
·                     the resurrection of Jesus as a religious “big bang” phenomenon that ushered in new connection with God,
·                     the Spirit being released in a new way upon creation because of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven.

All of this thinking has its roots in a theological worldview that takes for granted that God is an elsewhere deity, that humanity was somehow disconnected from God, and that the resurrection of Jesus was the great moment of re-connection with God ushering in a “new creation”. 

This progressive thinking about a “Cosmic Christ” figure tries to fit with what is known about the universe today and it seeks to be inclusive of all people, but in fact it keeps stumbling over several factors that its proponents never seem to acknowledge:

One, did Jesus have even the slightest notion of the claims made for “the cosmic Christ”?
And if he didn’t, (as I suspect he didn’t), this thinking puts the cart before the horse. Jesus and his teaching almost seem irrelevant – and in fact has become so to many proponents of this thinking. It is a great pity to hear so many “progressive” Christians who are immersed in a “new story of the universe” asking where Jesus fits into the “new” thinking.

Two, to what extent is “cosmic Christ” thinking reliant on a mystical experience of Paul and Paul’s grand vision of reality – at the expense of Jesus’ preaching about the here and now importance of establishing “God’s kingdom here on earth?

Paul’s grand vision of a new creation, while lofty and full of idealism, led to a monumental theological shift: the importance of Jesus was heavenly, not earthly. Consequently, theology became fixated on this heavenly figure and who he was and why he had to be so different from the rest of us in order to achieve the heavenly task.

I think Paul put the cart before the horse and distracted Christianity for 2000 years by putting the emphasis in the heavens rather than on earth.

Three, if “cosmic Christ” points to a reality that is way beyond the limitations of Christian thinking and is inclusive of all people and all religions and the totality of the universe and its past, present and future, why keep using the word, “Christ” which is so linked to the Christian religion and has a particular, limited understanding within Jewish and Christian thought?

There is another way to think about God and Jesus and revelation and the world and all its people – and I believe that “Christ” language is not at all helpful or even meaningful in this thinking.
Some key elements in this thinking are:

1                    The mystery we call “God” is beyond our human notions of “person” and the way we humans observe, react, think, plan and intervene.
2                    The universality of consciousness and energy are worthwhile contemporary pointers to this divine presence permeating and sustaining everything that exists.
3                    God is mystery beyond all knowing, a mystery always present and active – like “the breath” moving through all that exists.
4                    God is the mystery that underpins all that exists and can never be absent or disconnected from our world. It makes no sense whatever to assert that the divine presence can ever be separated from what exists because that presence is the cause and sustainer of all that exists
5                    God is manifested in our universe and in our world through observable patterns, such as those in evolutionary development on earth.
6                    Some of the key patterns are: working together, co-operation, moving to stages beyond the possibility of units not working together.
7                    The human species emerged from the divine presence at work through these and other patterns.
8                    The human species, as with all life forms, emerged within the divine.
9                    The divine presence, the mystery we call, “God”, has been, is, and always will be, present with the human endeavor and all of reality, constantly manifesting or giving expression to itself in the on-going developments. Revelation comes from the ground up, from within the human community and all that exists, not from heaven down.
10                The divine presence, operating within the human community, will naturally be given wonderful expression in people we see as “gifted” whether that be in art, music, science, philosophy, religious insight or any human field of achievement.  We would expect the divine presence to manifest itself clearly in men and women throughout the ages who would stress the need to work together, to co-operate with one another, to avoid violence and selfishness, and to care for one another.
11                Jesus came from God – but not from a God up above, but the always present, active divine presence. Jesus gave that divine presence a wonderful way to manifest itself.
12                Jesus, like other great religious leaders, gave wonderful, clear articulation of how men and women are to live in harmony with one another and to give the best possible human expression to the divine at work.
13                It is the message of Jesus that is of divine essence. It is the message that must be heard.
14                When Jesus died, he died into the ebb and flow of the divine always present.
15                “Christ” language and notions have effectively distracted Christians for 2,000 years from hearing the good and challenging news that Jesus preached. The followers of Jesus became “Christians”. It is time to examine what the word entails and to reflect to what extent Christianity locked itself into theological thinking and institutional agendas around “Christ” that have little to do with Jesus’ preaching and what he was ready to die for.
16                The information we have today about our universe and our planet and ourselves provides a new and more relevant context in which to tell the story of Jesus and how he gave human expression to the Mystery of God and what we desperately need, as a species, not just as Christians, to learn from his insights and preaching.

If we focus on Jesus, we focus on a human reality, on human experience, and the insights of someone living that experience. We can then bring that reality, experience and the insights to our living and our questioning today. To focus on Jesus is to focus on how to give the best possible human expression to the divine always present, everywhere, in our universe. To focus on Jesus leads to affirmation of the divine presence with us – and considerable challenge to give that presence “free reign” in all we do. To focus on Jesus is somehow open-ended. Being right or wrong is not the issue. The issue is how to live lives that give clear expression to the divine within all of us.

If we focus on Christ, whether we are aware of it or not, we are locking ourselves into institutional religion’s notions about God that are time and culturally conditioned. And more importantly, those notions are fiercely defended by the religious institution because they give the institution unique identity. Christ is misleading. It takes us away from Jesus and into the world of outdated institutional concepts of God and the defense of the religious institution’s identity. In this world, institutional leadership holds supreme control and tolerates no questioning as it constructs creeds and “tradition” and “authoritative teachings” that are not to be questioned. This is the world of thought control. Jesus would never be at home in this environment – and on this ground alone it is surely time for us to give serious thought to whether we should continue to link Jesus and Christ so blithely.