|I can remember believing all sorts of things about Jesus when I was young. I believed that he was God, yet at the same time independent of God. That in conjunction with the Holy Spirit he was part of a divine threesome, yet somehow God in his own right when praying to the Father aspect of that threesome. I believed he could walk on water, still storms with an upraised hand, conjure bread and fish out of thin air and, when pushed, change water into wine.
Content with the stories of how he had healed the sick and raised the dead, I trundled on through adolescence oblivious to the fact that the miraculous events in Jesus’ life flatly contradicted everything I was learning at school. What I was learning at school belonged to a different realm of mental activity. Enthralled by the idea of this wonderful man wandering around Palestine working miracles on a regular basis, I accepted all of the New Testament’s stories about Jesus without question.
The reason why I found this easy to do was because the adults in my life either reinforced the New Testament’s claims about Jesus, or never saw fit to question them. Jesus was untouchable. He was all good, all knowing, all wise, all loving, and he had sacrificed himself on the cross of Calvary for my sins. This had been his mission while on earth, his far-sighted plan hatched by himself before the world had come into existence.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
As God he had conceived of the idea that he, in the form of Jesus, would be born as a babe in Bethlehem and die on a crude Roman cross crying: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In fact the whole of human history and religious experience prior to that event had been no more than a limbering up exercise, a preparation for that moment in time when God himself would break into history as a human being.
Deserting himself while on the cross, God as Jesus experienced a loss of his God identity yet managed, at the same time, to rescue (by proxy) humanity from the torments of a hell reserved for those who rejected Christianity’s claim that it held the definitive revelation. A place of punishment existed for those who rejected, or ignored the Church’s interpretation of the Gospels, and it made all the sense in the world to accept God’s sacrifice of himself to himself on our behalf. What a mystery it all was. How could we ever hope to understand or appreciate why God had thought up such a scheme.
And that was that. Nothing else was required beyond going along with this scheme. Yes, you should thank God, or Jesus, at regular intervals for his gift of salvation, but apart from prayer and praise and living a good life, the show was over. We were off the hook. There was no more to the spiritual life than that. When God looked at a believer what he saw was his own saving act while extended into the world as Jesus. All we had to do was believe that this was so, tell other people, live a moral life and our spiritual destiny was secure.
And to make sure everyone stayed on the Christian path, Jesus/God had returned from heaven as the Holy Spirit. Resurrected from the dead, he had ascended into the sky, reached his Father’s side and returned as an influence within the minds of believers. All in all a remarkable story which, if accepted without question, had the power to change lives.
Saved from everlasting punishment in hell
There is no doubt whatever that those who invest belief in the Jesus story reap substantial rewards in this life. There is immense satisfaction in believing that when you die you are going to live in the presence of God/Jesus for all eternity, and that you have been saved from everlasting punishment in hell. For that is where unbelievers go, they go down to hell, whereas believers go up to heaven. And when you think about it, this is a quite sensible scenario, for the good have to be separated from the bad, don’t they?
Strange as it seems to me now, I used to believe in the old idea of hell, and it seemed perfectly natural to do so. As a youngster I believed in hell and the devil, and saw no need to doubt or question such an arrangement. And I believed that God wanted it that way, that he unwillingly, but inevitably, was forced to turn his back on unbelievers and leave them to experience unimaginable horror for having rejected the Jesus story. The Jesus story was divinely-revealed truth, to reject it was to reject God’s revelation to the whole of humanity.
I must have been around eighteen when it dawned on me that there were a lot of people in the world for whom the Jesus story could never be anything other than a story like any other story. Moslems, Jews and Hindus had their own stories, and although just as miraculous in content as the Gospels, the idea of Jesus being God, and therefore worthy of worship on a universal scale, was not part of their faith tradition. And the old idea that they should be persuaded to change their minds was no longer tenable – missionary work was now viewed as anti-cultural, a remnant of the bad old days of colonialism. We believed what we believed because of geography and upbringing, because our culture was saturated with a particular set of religious ideas, not because these ideas were indisputably true.
In light of what is known about our world, and the universe, the approach of many Christians today is to say that Jesus could not have walked on water or stilled storms. The world has never been God’s play-thing, they will tell you. It is a law-governed domain in which even God cannot interfere. With the help of medicine and a little psychology the sick can certainly be healed, but Jesus’ talents had never at any time extended to bringing the truly dead back to life. As a man of flesh and blood, he had been bound by the same fundamental laws as everyone else. A Jesus raising the dead or sailing majestically off into the heavens was acceptable as poetry, or as metaphor, but if taken as factual events such stories disabled poetic truth.
Conservative believers are nervous about poetic truth
Conservative believers in the Jesus story are understandably nervous about poetic truth – it just doesn’t have the same ring as factual truth. A poetised Jesus is a Jesus reduced to human standards. When applied to the New Testament, poetry and metaphor absorb its shimmering energy and make Jesus into no more than a divinely inspired man. No, God obviously expects us to believe in the highly improbable Jesus story as it has come down to us, and it is the act of abandoning ourselves to such improbable religious ideas that makes the whole thing work. At least that’s the theory. God’s plan of salvation is, as St Paul suggests, a foolishness to the unbeliever, and we have to believe in this foolishness to pass the test of faith.
When it comes to Christians trained in science or philosophy, however, only a handful seem capable of sustaining any level of belief in a Jesus who walked on water, or in a God who ignores his own laws. Carefully considered qualifications are suddenly everywhere. The events of the New Testament are sifted and subjected to historical, psychological or alternative theological analysis, the Jesus story made to undergo radical change. In the light of what is now known about the early history of the primitive Church, and of Christianity as it grew and developed in Rome, we are challenged to rethink our conception of the Jesus story. To believe that every jot and tittle of that story should be taken literally jeopardises our capacity to grow and mature as people.
Jesus was bound by the same fundamental laws as everyone else
Knowing what we now know about our solar system, the nature of the universe, gravity, and much else besides, it stand to reason that Jesus did not, could not, and even if he had been God would not, have ascended into the sky as the New Testament records. Jesus was bound by the same fundamental laws as everyone else. Such ideas belong to a time long since gone, an age when human beings believed all kinds of extraordinary things. To qualify as spiritual, should we really be expected to lay aside our education and submit our minds to what is no more than pious exaggeration? In saying this I’m not suggesting an abandonment of Christianity, I’m suggesting a rescuing of our religious heritage and a renewal of its form.
I’m also suggesting that Christianity’s faith tradition, when it is of the literalist variety, is doing a disservice to Jesus’ message when it sells us the stock-in-trade Jesus story. Jesus was not schizophrenically alluding to himself when he talked about, or to, his Father in Heaven, he was pointing beyond himself. The idea that faith is composed of beliefs about Jesus, or God, or the Church, is a misinterpretation and a misrepresentation of what faith is in essence. Faith is not about ‘belief’, it is about ‘trust’. Not trust in a God who interferes in human history, a God who takes sides, a God who, in one way or another, is willing to torment human beings for all eternity, but in our intuition of something inexplicable in the depths of human nature.
This God has no face, no body, and no plan in mind. In fact this God does not have a mind. This God transcends the human in all aspects. He has no eyes, no nose, no mouth, no tongue, no larynx and, subsequently, no voice. And he isn’t a he. In fact this God does not actually exist in any sense that we can understand. Perhaps this is why the God of the conscious mind, the constructed God of belief is described as a jealous God, a God who loves and hates, a God who expects unquestioning obedience – he is just us inflated to enormous proportions.
Christian contemplatives challenge theology’s circumscribed conception of deity
In terms of renewal, it is interesting to note that Christian contemplatives often challenge theology’s circumscribed conception of deity and invite a different approach to spiritual truth. Literalist definitions are out; ambiguity and inconclusiveness is in. Certainty of belief is out; the dark night of the soul is in. Struggling to comprehend the spiritual life, the contemplative descends into the darkness of the self and is confronted with the possibility that Christianity’s essence is quite different from what he or she has supposed. The God of surface consciousness evaporates and is replaced by an altogether different experience of spiritual reality, a reality that challenges pet assumptions.
But such a possibility cannot be realised if we believe that spiritually everything that has to be done has already been done by Jesus on our behalf. If this is the end of the matter for us, then there is no need to approach the challenging darkness of our inner life, or the challenging obscurity of a world as yet only partially understood, no need to penetrate beneath the surface of man-made doctrines or face up to the fact that belief in the Jesus story has, throughout the centuries, caused the death of many millions of human beings. Ignoring the suggestion that our faith tradition has too often been found wanting, we continue in the belief that a menu of beliefs about Jesus is sufficient unto itself.
The mind plays tricks on itself
In this context we may believe that Jesus/God is speaking to us directly through the Holy Spirit. This idea hides a multitude of sins; it is a form of wishful thinking. The mind plays tricks on itself, and the idea that divinity in some shape or form is whispering inside our heads has to be seen for what it is – a potentially dangerous delusion. Yet it is a claim made by many Christians, a claim used by them to bolster the notion of a special one-to-one relationship with Jesus/God that annuls doubt, renders questioning obsolete and furnishes them with the equivalent of a cosmic telephone. Convinced that their beliefs about Jesus are beyond contradiction, the dangers inherent in their situation escape their notice.
This is not to gainsay the still small voice of Elijah’s experience; it is to highlight the improbability of that voice turning into a radio broadcast. To me, the still small voice is that which arises during great sorrow or suffering, or in times of great challenge, or in a deeply observant or creative moment. It is a presence at the heart of life, it is deeply compassionate, and it is available to everyone.
To know the self is to go beyond the self
This presence is what the Christian contemplative understands as the presence of God, and it is intricately related to our own felt presence. Lost most of the time in thought or deed, we only occasionally become aware of ourselves (and others) as a living presence, and as a result only seldom touch upon that which underpins or supports the self. In this sense, to become aware of the self is to go beyond the self, it is to discover that the fleeting and ever-so-delicate sense of self which occasionally arises within us is more than a mere waking up to where we are, or to who we are, but also an intimation of what we are in the depths of our natures.
Let me say again that I am not trying to demote the Christian vision, I am trying to restate and reinstate what lies at Christianity’s core – the discovery that the human and the divine are closely related. The God/Jesus nexus points to the possibility of a relationship with our own depths which can inform and transform the conscious mind. In this reading of things, the divine is not an elderly super-being stationed in a dimension beyond our ken, or a god-man stranded in history, it is something deeply transformative at the heart of our common humanity.