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Sunday, March 8, 2020
Religion ... Society ... Spirituality ...

In modern America, the question of why a particular person belongs to a particular religious tradition (if they belong at all), and to what degree are they involved, is a complicated matter. It includes but goes well beyond the person’s agreement with what a particular religion holds to be true (and thus teaches its members). Beyond mere agreement of belief, it is also important that the religion inspire you — do you “feel” it?

There is also the matter of practice, of ritual and traditions – do you like the services? Do you want to live the way that the religion advises you to? Do you approve of the way that the religion is managed, who makes the decisions, who has more status and who has less? Are you impressed and maybe even inspired by the leaders of the faith, and also by other people who hold this religion and practice it? Was your family involved in this religion? Do you have friends who are involved? The main doctrines and teachings and philosophies that are central to a religion’s identity are very important; but there are also plenty of cultural and personal and relational factors that enter.

Nonetheless, at the core of most major religions, there are a group of very important stories that sum up what that religion is about. Joseph Campbell uses the term “myth” to refer to these stories. He is not using that term in the negative; he is not concerned with whether the story is literally true (although most religious stories are ancient and do not concern themselves with historically provable events – although they might sometimes be a hyped-up version of some smaller event that actually happened). He is after the core meaning and importance of the story to those who hold it sacred.

Just for the heck of it, I thought that I would compare the key stories / myths of two major world religions – Christianity and Judaism. Oh, and as a bonus, I’ll throw in a quick consideration of a third totally unrelated religious system – Buddhism. This will allow some interesting comparisons between the “Judeo-Christian” perspective and the very different Buddhist way of thinking. I’m not an expert at either of these faith systems, but I have either been involved in (or at least have studied and observed) all 3.

In the western world, Judaism is older than Christianity; it is historically the system of faith from which Christianity emerged almost 2,000 years ago. So, let’s have a look at Judaism first. What are the most important stories to the Jews of yesterday and today? I’m not a Jew nor an expert on Judaism, but based upon what I have heard, I would nominate the following episodes from the Tanakh, or as Christians know it, the Old Testament.

1.) In the beginning . . . the first book tells of the creation of our world and our universe by God. Then comes the story of the first humans (who were also created by God in that first busy week) – Adam and Eve. God makes Adam and Eve a very good offer – you can live in an idyllic realm, the Garden of Eden; but you’ve gotta stay away from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Plenty of other nice trees to choose from, just don’t pick any fruit from that one tree. Well, you know how that works out. Their sons Cain and Able wind up fighting and humanity’s capacity for evil comes into full view. After about 10 generations, a man named Noah is born. By that time, there were plenty of wicked people along with the good. God felt that there were way too many, and so He decided to bring forth a great flood that would clean the earth of all this deprivation.

However, seeing that Noah was one of the few good people around, God told Noah about the upcoming flood, and told him to get busy building a big boat (an “ark”), so as to hold your children and enough animals to re-start the world once the waters recede. After 40 days of rain, it would take another 150 days for the flood to recede. Noah follows suit, and so he makes it thru the big storm. He finds dry land, and his family is ready to re-populate the planet. God then hands Noah and his family some rules to live by and declares a Covenant with him and his successors. The foundations for a people of God were put into place with Noah, a foundation that would be built upon and fulfilled by Abraham and Moses in the next few stories.

2.) Abraham is born a few generations after Noah. He is told by God to take his only son Issac to Moriah, set up a sacrificial altar, and instead of bringing a lamb along to slaughter, he is to use his knife to kill little Isaac. He has an unquestioning faith in God, so Abraham proceeds to do just that. After Isaac helps Abraham to set up the altar, Abraham grabs the boy and bounds his hands and feet, and puts him on the altar. Then he draws his knife. But in a moment of peak Hollywood suspense, God sends down an angel messenger who tells Abraham to stop, don’t do it! This is a test, this is ONLY a TEST!

And hey Abraham, you passed! As your reward, God promises that you will be the father and founder of a great people. You will have more descendants than the stars in the sky, and every nation on earth will be blessed through your descendants. You are the man!! The father of the great nation of Israel.

3.) Zoom forward a few centuries, and the people of Israel have been sold into slavery under the Pharaoh in Egypt. And the Pharaoh has been getting antsy about them; he already tried to kill the male children of every Jewish family (drowning them in the Nile River), because their numbers were growing too large for his liking. But in that attempt, a great leader named Moses emerged, and God has now directed Moses to take it to the Pharaoh and warn him that God is not at all pleased with how he is treating the Israelites. God tells Moses to warn Pharaoh of coming plagues and holocausts if he doesn’t listen.

Well, of course, Pharaoh doesn’t listen. And thus, God puts his plan into action. A wave of avenging angels are about to swoop down on Egypt and kill every first-born child. But God tips Moses off about this and tells him to have every Jewish family mark their door with some blood, so that the angelic attack squadrons will know enough to “pass over” their homes. And it works. Thus, the “Passover”.

4.) Pharaoh’s son is killed during the Passover attack, so Pharaoh gets the message. He decides to let the Jews go.

5.) Moses sets out for the Promised Land with his people. Along the way (Moses never makes it to that land, but gets close enough to see it from a mountain top), God encounters Moses on a mountain, giving him 10 commandments for his people.

6.) Moses gets his people within sight of the promised “holy land”, but dies before they would enter. Joshua would take up the leadership role, and under his command the Jews battled their way into control of the patch of land along the far-eastern rim of the Mediterranean Sea.

7.) King David – oh goodness, where do you start with David? In the post-Moses era of the Hebrew Testament, the Jewish tribes were ruled somewhat informally by leaders called “the Judges”. After a few centuries, however, the Hebrews picked up the idea that they should have a unified nation-state led by a king, as was happening in the lands surrounding them (i.e., “the nations”). Their first experiences with kings were so-so; Kings Saul and Ish-bosheth (Saul’s son, a short-lived arrangement) were not terribly inspiring. Saul disobeyed divine commands and did other mischief, and had mixed results on the battlefields.

But then came David, and the united kingdom of Judea and Israel finally had a man of legend. As a young shepherd, David defeated Goliath, a strong and fearsome champion of the enemy. Next, David had to survive the treachery of Saul, which he did with his quick wits. As a king, David was a powerful warrior who defeated all of the tribes and peoples challenging the Jewish kingdom, especially the Philistines. He built strong bonds among the Jewish tribes, thus strengthening the power of a united Israel. He successfully quelled several internal rebellions. He was also remembered as a devout and pious Jew, albeit not without human fault, i.e. the Bathsheba adultery incident. He was alleged to be a man of culture who played the lyre, and was said to have written the Psalms as a gift of poetry to God. After David died, his son Solomon continued in David’s ways and the Kingdom continued. However, after Solomon, the following kings were weak and the people became divided, and Israel increasingly fell under the dominance of foreign rulers.

And thus, the 6-point star, the symbol of Judaism which emerged in the Middle Ages, represents two deltas — the delta is the symbol for “D”, as in David (according to the New World Encyclopedia, “David” in Hebrew script contains three characters, two of which are “D” or “Dalet,”. In ancient times, this letter was written in a form much like a triangle, similar to the Greek letter Delta. Thus, the “double D” symbol may have been a family crest formed by flipping and juxtaposing the two most prominent letters in the name.)

So, those are some of the biggest stories behind Judaism. Christianity is also based on a handful of big, heavily meaningful stories. Here is a list of some of those:

1.) The virgin conception of Jesus – there was a humble and God-fearing young woman named Mary living in a village in rural Galilee. Even though she is “promised in marriage” to a wood-worker named Joseph, she is still a virgin. One day an angel named Gabriel comes to visit her to tell here that despite her virginity, she is pregnant – and not with just any child! This child will be “Son of the Most High” and will be “King over the family of Jacob”; the “Son of God”, no less! One of the Gospels (Matthew) tells us that Joseph was a bit upset finding out that his wife-to-be was pregnant and wanted to split, but an angel told him to stick around.

2,) Before long, Jesus is born in Bethlehem. One Gospel (Luke) tells us that Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth up in Galilee, but had to travel south to Bethlehem for the purposes of a Roman census, since both Mary and Joseph descend from the family of King David, who came from Bethlehem. They get to Bethlehem just as Mary is ready to deliver, and because the town is already booked with other census-travelers, they have to spend the night in a barn (usually described as a “manager” in modern Christmas tradition). So Jesus is born in a very humble fashion.

3.) Soon after his birth, three wise men from the east show up, following a bright star in the night sky. They happen across Joseph, Mary and Jesus, and they knew right away that Jesus was what the star was all about. They came bearing gifts, and left them as tribute to Jesus. After departing for home, they came across Herod, the regional client-king who administers things for the Romans. They told him of Jesus, who they knew was to become “King of the Jews”. Herod freaks out about this, and thus decides to kill off all male infants in and around Bethlehem. (Does this sound familiar?) So Joseph has to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt for asylum. Obviously, these details tie the story of Jesus to the great Jewish foundational myths.

4.) After a fairly normal young adulthood as a Jewish wood worker up in Galilee, Jesus joined an apocalyptic cult run by a man named John the Baptist. John was one of several “apocalyptics” active in Galilee and Judea in the First Centuries (BCE and CE). These movements anticipated a direct miraculous intervention by God in the land of the Jews. They looked to God (and not to their own war-making efforts) to cast out the Romans along with the powerful Jewish leaders who had compromised themselves by accepting Roman power and cultural ways. God would instill a new kingdom based on justice and righteousness.

After a spell with John, Jesus decides to hone his own apocalyptic message and finds his own disciples. Jesus takes it up a notch by not only preaching the coming “end of the world as we know it”, but further claiming that he himself was the guy that God intended to prepare for the revolution. Jesus would then rule the new kingdom in the name of the God on High. Not that this idea was entirely new; it basically riffed on the visions described in the Jewish Book of Daniel, Chapter 7 (Daniel had been written about 150 years before Jesus). The Romans and the Jews aligned with them (especially the High Priest of the Temple and his associates, aka “the Sanhedrin”, along with a well-off and related group of Jews known as the Sadducees) would be swept out, and years of corrupt foreign dominance would be replaced with a kingdom of righteous freedom.

Of course, when the Roman Governor along with the Sanhedrin and Sadducees realized the full import of what Jesus had been preaching, they felt threatened. And the Romans never responded to threats in a subtle fashion. So, on a fateful Passover in Jerusalem, Jesus was taken by the Romans and crucified; crucifixion was the torturous death sentence that the Romans gave to anyone who threatened their interests. It screamed out the message “don’t mess with us!”

5.) But the roman cross was not the end of the Jesus story. The best was yet to come! Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and on the following Sunday, those of his female followers who were still in Jerusalem went to administer burial preparations (the men probably got out of town for their own safety on the news of Jesus being crucified, although John, the latest and least “historical” Gospel, claims that Peter was still there). They could not locate the body of Jesus, despite the fact that an honorable burial tomb had been provided for him by a wealthy sympathizer (crucified bodies were usually heaped by the Romans and buried in a pit). An angel greeted them and told them that Jesus had arisen, and they would see him up the road to Galilee. Over the coming weeks, Jesus made several short appearances to a variety of the disciples before he was “taken up” into heaven. But in his short encore, Jesus had revealed himself to his followers as “the Christ”, the Holy Son of God.

6.) Once Jesus was gone for good, the disciples wondered whether and how to continue the movement that Jesus had started. For the time being, they remained together and attended the Jewish rituals in Jerusalem (obviously in a far less dramatic fashion than when Jesus was with them!). The next big one was the Shavout, an early summer harvest festival, i.e. start of the wheat harvest. This was also called the Pentecost, relating to the word “penta” or 5-sided pentagon – reflecting the fact that the festival was held about 50 days after Passover. During this gathering, Jesus’ disciples suddenly experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit, seeing fire and speaking in tongues. This group experience gave them the courage to go on, to make sure that Jesus and his “Good News” would not be forgotten. The human Jesus was gone, but Christ had sent his Spirit to empower them and their successors as the founders of the Church.

7.) And then came Paul, originally a persecutor of the disciples. He had his own revelation of Jesus on the road to Damascus, and so he joined the nascent Jesus movement and turned out to be its most energetic leader. Paul took what at first looked like a Jewish sect based in Jerusalem (under Jesus’ brother James) and spread it widely across the Roman Empire, breaking the link with Jerusalem and giving the early church its own character independent of Judaism.

SO, what can we say about the Jewish stories versus the Christian stories? First, we see how strongly the Christian stories relate to the Jewish ones. In its first 50 years or so, Christianity existed mainly as a sect of Judaism. After a while (especially under the leadership of Paul), it asserted its own identity and Judaism no longer recognized the Jesus movement as “part of the family”. Can that outcome be seen as a reflection in the character of these stories themselves?

Well, first off, the Christian stories are strongly focused around Jesus and his revelation as the eternal Christ. They focus on Jesus as an individual, and they speak largely to the individual who would follow him. Salvation in Christ is ultimately a personal matter, although the Church of Christ is given the mandate to lead those seeking salvation along the right path. Only the story of the Pentecost is the story of a community, a community built around the everlasting presence of the Christ and the Holy Spirit on earth. And even then, the focus soon shifted and focused upon Paul as an individual. In sum, the relationship between God and the individual is directed through the Christ and the Spirit, and thru Paul’s Church. The community supports this arrangement and weaves itself around the collective known as the Church; but in the end, you will stand alone before God on the Judgment day.

By contrast, the Jewish stories focus strongly upon community, the people of Israel. The characters involved (Abraham, Moses, David) stand out as agents of the people who stand before God, but in the end, God is focused more on the group than on the individual. The spiritual fate of the individual does not proceed independently of the community.

Of course, in the day-to-day world, this dichotomy is not a strict rule. You can find Christians who are strongly oriented in their identity as part of a sect or a community, and you can find Jewish movements that emphasize the personal relationship between God and the individual. And yet, the foundational myths of these two traditions do point to two different ideas about the relationships between God, community, and the individual.

Given that Christianity originated within the Jewish tradition and that its stories have many references to the Jewish myths, one wonders how and why did Christians de-emphasize their identity as “the New Israel” and spotlight their role as followers of Christ? I am not a Christian history scholar, but I have read that the early Church, as it spread across the Roman Empire, was increasingly influenced by Greek philosophy. And Greek thought itself had a strong focus on the individual, on the nature and justification of our individual being. Many of the early “Church Fathers” are noted for integrating Platonic thought into Christian doctrine, including Clement, Origin, Justin Martyr, and Augustine. Strains of Greek thinking can be detected in the letters of Paul himself.

Jewish thought also absorbed Greek thinking after 200 BCE, but the great stories of Judaism were already well established and could not be “tweeked” by Hellenized Jewish scholars such as Philo of Alexandria. So we see a foundational difference of mindset between Judaism and Christianity when we look to their founding myths. Before we close, let’s throw in a totally different tradition, from the far East — Buddhism! What are the founding myths of Buddhism? Well, obviously they are based on the story of the Buddha. I am not an expert on Buddhist foundations, but in a nutshell, they focus almost exclusively on the life and teachings of the Buddha. His birth story has some similarities to the Christian virgin birth myth, although instead of God there is some sort of white elephant in a dream. Unlike Jesus, however, the Buddha grows up in a wealthy family. But despite all of the material luxury and security, Buddha sets out on a spiritual mission. He examines the ways of extreme asceticism, after years of living in a lavish fashion. But he finally settles upon a “middle way”. He sets out to teach the world how to find enlightenment and transcend human suffering, builds a following, and lives a fairly long life, leaving many, many lessons behind.

The Buddha story is very different than both the Christian and Jewish stories. However, like the Christian mythology, the story of the Buddha is very much focused on the individual, on the life of the Buddha and on the lives of his followers who seek enlightenment. As with Christian judgement, enlightenment is mostly a private affair. The community is important for helping individuals prepare for these great moments. But in the end, you enter heaven or attain nirvana as an individual.

In modern times, an increasing number of Christians have become interested in eastern spirituality, and have embraced some of the many forms of Buddhism (including Zen, the tradition that I am somewhat familiar with). Many ex-Christians wind up following Buddhism, but a significant number assert that they honor both traditions. As to Judaism, I myself know a handful of Jews who practice Buddhism, and all of them have left behind the rituals and spiritual practices of their youth. However, I can’t say that I’ve ever met or heard of a Jew who tries to practice both traditions. I’m sure that there are some, but they don’t seem as prominent as the many Christian Buddhists.

Given the fundamental differences between the Jewish and Christian myths, this does not surprise me. Both Christians and Buddhists look to stories that emphasize individual identity and practice. The Jewish myths have a different, more communal character to them. There are Jews who are attracted to the intellectual rigor emphasized in Buddhist study, comparable to the tradition of deep study of the Tanak and the Talmud by devout Jews. And thus you can find a Zen Rabbi if you look (e.g. Rabbi Don Singer of Los Angeles). But I still think that it’s easier to find a Zen priest or nun.

Nonetheless, Shalom and Gassho!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:08 pm      

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