Thursday, January 15, 2015
Remember that line in Pretty Woman where Richard Gere’s character says to Julia Roberts’ character, “What’s your name?” and she says, “What do you want it to be?” I think of that when I think of Jesus. Or to put it another way, Reza Aslan, in his book new book, Zealot, says, “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves--their own reflection--in the image of Jesus they have constructed” (p. xxxi). It ain’t just scholars, my friends.
Over the last month, I read Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg, as well as about a third of the book Zealot which I quoted above, and a few chapters of Imaginary Jesus, a humorous novel of sorts written by an evangelical Christian pastor. Of course this was not my first, nor my only exposure to Jesus. I grew up with Jesus as “my personal Lord and savior.” I chose to be baptized in a pentecostal church as a teenager. I even went to Bible college for a brief and painful semester. Over the years I’ve read books by esoteric philosopher Richard Smoley and Aramaic scholar Neil Douglas-Klotz, among others. During our month of studying Christianity last year, I watched a Discovery Channel documentary on the historical Jesus several times. Etc. etc. ad nauseam.
Here’s the thing: Despite the libraries full of books and and movies about him and all the churches and theologians and lay people who devote their lives to Jesus, there’s little, if anything, really, that we can know about this guy around whom one of the largest religions in the world has been created. In fact, there are some scholars who doubt even the existence of such a person at all. Almost all of the biographical information we have for Jesus is not historical in the way we understand history, but is indeed mythological. In fact, most of Jesus’ supposed unique biography existed centuries prior to him in the biographies of pagan gods and sages. And yet, there are those who believe every detail in the Bible about the life of this mythological creature we call Jesus--even those details that contradict each other. These same folks will tell you that Jesus was and is real, that he is God incarnate who existed before the beginning of time, died to forgive our sins, that believing in the the magical details they claim about him is the only way to get to Heaven and avoid eternal torment in a lake of fire… and all that jazz.
There’s been so much hype built up over a guy who, assuming he did exist, was a poor Jewish peasant living in occupied territory, fed up to the point of being willing to risk his own life over the oppression of his people at the hands of his colonizers and the collusion and corruption among the wealthy and priestly classes within his own religion! And in case you didn’t know, there’s nothing unique about any of this, either. Jesus would have lived during a time of extreme political and social unrest, with revolutionary messengers and “messiahs” popping up all over the place. Was there something unique about the message Jesus shared? Or was the Jesus that got passed down and built up over the centuries a conglomeration of many such preachers, messiahs, and martyrs, becoming over time all that people wanted to hold onto and believe in?
Ultimately, for most of us, Jesus is whoever it is that we want Jesus to be. I have decided that I want Jesus to be a combination of the Jesus that Marcus Borg and Neil Douglas-Klotz teach about. That’s because they illuminate a Jesus that I aspire to be like--revolutionary, justice-seeking/making, a mystic deeply connected to Source. I can rock on with that Jesus! Douglas-Klotz presents a Jesus who had a non-dual understanding of and relationship with Alaha--Sacred Unity, The One Without Opposite, what we call God--and was a mystic deeply immersed in that Reality. Borg describes Jesus as a spirit person, “a person to whom the sacred is an experiential reality.” He says spirit people are “people who experience the sacred frequently and vividly,” and that “they are delegates of the tribe to another layer of reality, mediators who connect their communities to the Spirit” (p. 32-33). He sums up his understanding of Jesus, describing him as “a spirit person, subversive sage, social prophet, and movement founder who invited his followers and hearers into a transforming relationship with the same Spirit that he himself knew, and into a community whose social vision was shaped by the core value of compassion” (p. 119). Sign me up! I want to be that!
To be clear, it doesn’t matter to me whether or not this person actually existed in history. The concept of this person is enough. The influence of the concept of this person is enough. I am not tied to historical, matter-of-fact truth as being the only kind of truth. There’s metaphorical and mythological truth that points to a big-”T” Truth, or Wisdom that is transcendent. I can find strength, inspiration, wisdom, and so much more from our modern-day fictional mythologies like The Matrix, Star Wars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer just as well as from the ancient religions, and I often do. So my essential answer to whether or not Jesus existed, should anyone ask, would be, “Who cares?”
The Jesus I choose to believe in is one who, if followed, would make me and the world a better place--more loving, compassionate, just, and deeply connected to Source and each other. I’m not sure anything else really matters.
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