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Friday, April 6, 2012
Personal Reflections ... Religion ... Spirituality ...

To repeat for the 856th time or so on this blog, I don’t consider myself to be a Christian, even less a Roman Catholic Christian . . . even though that is the religious tradition that I grew up in. On the other side of the coin, I don’t consider myself to be an anti-Christian or anti-Catholic, either. I have taken a spiritual path in my life that needs more leeway than the Catholics (and every other Christian community, for that matter) can provide.

And yet, I still respect the Christian / Catholic tradition. I acknowledge that it has imposed much suffering on certain people and groups over its history — it is a fallible human institution, despite what it believes about itself. And yet, for all its faults, I believe that it still preserves and presents some essential truths about humankind, plus the universe, and then ultimately God. I don’t fully agree with its theology of a Holy Trinity; but if the ultimate point of all its doctrine is to speak to the reality and existence of a loving and caring (and yet mysterious and ultimately unknowable) God, then Christianity and I still have some common ground.

So, I decided to tag along with my still very-Catholic brother this past Sunday to see a passion play put on by a high school group at a local parish. They call themselves “The Franciscan Mystery Players of Notre Dame Church” and are part of a national Mystery Play movement that presents “Jesus the Healer, a living meditation on healing”. The play and the local players were pretty good, admittedly. There was a lot of emotion to it; the kids did a nice job, they really put themselves into it.

I had something of a “revelation” myself during the play. I started pondering the fact (i.e., what I believe is a fact based on a variety of writings regarding the historical Jesus, e.g. E.P. Sanders, John Meier, Paula Fredriksen, Bart Ehrman, Gerd Theissen, and Dale Allison) that everything Jesus said and did focused on his belief that God was going to establish a Godly kingdom right there on the dust of Israel, in very short time. As such, it was easy for Jesus to say “sell all you own”, given this belief. It made a lot of sense to Jesus and his followers to prepare for the big change, to make radical changes in their lives, if the new heavenly regime would arrive in only a few months or weeks.

These “mystery player” kids probably do not realize that. Their Catholic priests and catechism teachers would probably not mention it, and perhaps don’t know much about historical Jesus studies themselves. They don’t know (or don’t want to know) that Jesus was just plain wrong in staking his life on the belief that God was just about to intervene in human government by throwing out the Romans as to set up a perfect world for those who “made the cut” (i.e., survived the judgement). Jesus most likely saw himself as God’s chosen one to run the show (i.e., the “Son of Man”). I have no doubt that Jesus knowingly and willingly submitted to the Romans on that Passover celebration, because he knew they would put him on a cross. This “paschal sacrifice” of his would then force God’s hand to start the “big event”.

As such, I have no doubt that Jesus screamed “why have you forsaken me” when it became apparent that an army of angels was not going to come down from the clouds before sunset. Jesus must have thought “what was I thinking!!!!” as he felt himself dying that afternoon.

Back to the mystery play: I could also feel something of a “radiation of goodness” from Jesus being conveyed by those kids, still glowing like that microwave background in the sky that glows dimly from the Big Bang. It helped me to understand why Christianity even formed, given how wrong it was and is in explaining the meaning of Jesus and his death. It helped me to understand why Christianity grew and still survives, despite how twisted and messed up it became over the centuries, and how dysfunctional it still is. Somehow, Christianity in general and “the Holy Roman Church” in particular, are still imbued with the “afterglow” of something that was truly good about Jesus. That’s what powers it and maintains the whole Church apparatus, despite all the corruption of the vehicle itself. Somewhat like a bad, broken down clunker car still moving forward by burning jet fuel.

In feeling this “glow”, I can understand how Jesus’ followers and early church figures decided that “we can’t let this thing die”, even though they knew that Jesus had killed himself for nothing by goading the Romans. It was clear for all to see that Jesus was just plain wrong. Well yes, at first the early Jesus movement taught that the Parousia was still coming, there was just a temporary delay — but they could have decided just as easily that “it’s all a lie, it’s all a failure”.

So there really must have been something good and powerful that came through about Jesus, despite his delusions of being “God’s Revolutionary Agent”.

Yes, Jesus saw himself as playing the same role that Aung San and Desmond Tutu played. But the revolution that Jesus envisioned fell flat, was like a rocket blowing up on the launch pad. And yet . . . despite his insane delusion, the good intentions and inspirations behind that delusion must have truly inspired those around him. They couldn’t let his spirit die, despite how wrong Jesus was about God’s plan. So they came up with a new story to explain it all, one that Jesus probably would not recognize. A First Century Jewish prophet believing in the Trinity and the authority of the Pope? I don’t think so. But the Church’s “story” and teaching, even though it has nothing to do with Jesus as he actually was, somehow captured and preserved something of the “radiation of goodness” from Jesus. And those kids that I saw on Sunday night, they tapped into that “radiation” in a small but meaningful way.

Well, not that I’m going to become a Catholic-in-good-standing again. I still do NOT believe in the Holy Trinity, in “Jesus his only Son”, etc. No Apostles Creed for me!! But that “radiation of goodness” is still there, even if it is VERY faint, too faint to prevent all the terrible church abuses. E.g., all the stupidity of barring women from taking their rightful place, allowing priests to think they could get away with ancient sexual practices in relation to teenage boys, etc. You don’t feel this “afterglow” or “radiation” most of the time, but perhaps on Holy Week (and maybe also Christmas), it starts making one’s inner “Geiger Counter” start clicking a little bit.

(Too bad that the priests in residence from the parish didn’t stop by to see the play and get a little bit of “glow”; guess they had better things to do on a Sunday night, probably saw the play many times already, maybe don’t see and feel the “glow” anymore — such is the state of the Catholic priesthood these days).

Of course, there are many learned and serious people out there who disagree with my lead presumption, i.e. that the gospels and the other evidence regarding Judaism in First Century Palestine require an historical interpretation of Jesus as a failed, delusional apocalypist. Obviously, many of the Christian faithful want to preserve their knowledge of Jesus as Son of God and redeemer of our fallen humanity, forgiver of sins, founder of The Church and the Heavenly authority behind its priesthood and teachings, personal savior, inspiration behind the inerrant Holy Word of the Bible, etc. A lot of other scholarly people see Jesus as an early social revolutionary or a proto-feminist. Other views include magician, bastard son of a Roman soldier, and the scandalous lover of Mary of Magdala (based on a line in the Gospel of Philip from the Nag Hammadi codices), etc. There are plenty of different Jesus’s out there.

And yet, my point remains — if there weren’t something extraordinary about Jesus of Nazareth, he would have been mostly or completely forgotten; at best, lumped together with other First Century spiritual activists like Honi the Circle Drawer and The Egyptian of Acts 21. No matter how wrong Jesus was in his life, and no matter what his errors actually were, his living touched something deep in men’s and women’s minds and souls. He changed the world, like hardly any other human has. That cannot be denied. I personally believe that the local “Franciscan Mystery Players” somehow conveyed to me just a little spark or glimpse of that “remnant signal of truth and goodness” from the past. As Roger Waters sang, “I turned to look, but it was gone, I cannot put my finger on it now . . .”

But hey, even if you are a “post-Christian” like myself, keep an eye out for those Lenten plays by the Franciscan Mystery Players. The kids should be back in business here in the Northern Jersey suburbs by next March . . . God be willing.

P.S. — It’s probably just as well that the Franciscan Mystery Players stick to the standard interpretation of the New Testament in portraying Jesus. Some of those “alternative gospels” get pretty wacky. Albeit, they might allow for some entertaining moments — such as the scene in the Gospel of Peter where the cross (the wooden cross on which Jesus was crucified) starts walking and talking:

When therefore the soldiers saw it, they awakened the centurion and the elders … they declared what things they had seen … three men had come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them: and of the two the head reached unto the heaven, but the head of him that was led by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, have you preached to those that sleep. And a response was heard from the cross — Yes.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:08 pm      

  1. Jim, Well, I tend to think that a lot of Christians, rather than actually *believing* in various doctrines, tend to have a kind of “yeah, yeah” attitude about it all. I seriously doubt that there are many Christians who take really SERIOUSLY any doctrine(s). Sure, there are probably some (a few?) who do take doctrines seriously; but I tend to think that most Christians, at least those in America, tend to not be so worried about taking them all that seriously. Perhaps I’m wrong here; but I’ve wondered about this for a long time.

    If one goes back to the doctrines of the church, one finds that it took, in some cases, hundreds of years (sometimes more–a millennia and more) for a particular doctrine to be finalized–and then there was often still disagreement among the various theologians. So the idea that Jesus himself thought about doctrines is not something that occurred, as I see it.

    I DO think that he saw himself as a political person of some sort, perhaps seeing himself, hoping he would have some political influence, only to be rudely and unjustly “gotten rid of” by the Jewish High Pirests and Romans who were not going to have the Carpenter from Nazareth cause any trouble for them in any way. So they just “got rid” of him.

    I think that what you mention, the “glow” that came off the players had little to do with the Church as such and everything to do with the importance that each person’s concept of religion played in the lives of those players. As is still believed in the Orthodox Church, there is a “divine spark” in each of us toward which each person tends. I’d say it was the “divine spark” in each of the players that you felt that was the important thing.

    It’s this last thing, the “glow” thing that pops up when someone meets, sees someone who is good, someone who reflects the “spark” of the divine that one reacts to, finds worthy of consideration when one sees it. Glad you saw it at Notre Dame Players. Anyway, this is how I see these things.

    I’ve always found that seeing/meeting that “glow” is a wonderful thing. In my life, when I’ve met it, I’ve always been grateful and glad for it. Those occasions in my life have never been forgotten. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 6, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

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