A New View, Page 2
A New View, Page 1

BUT THEN CAME A RENAISSANCE (AND A FRANCIS OR TWO): The Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Centuries were not very inspiring times in the history of the Christian Church. But just before 1100 CE, there were some tiny sparks in the darkness. Pope Gregory the 7th instituted reforms within the main church, and the monastic movement rededicated itself with the start of the Cistercian and Carthusian orders. As the Middle Ages progressed into the 12th, 13th and 14th Centuries, many un-Jesus-like things continued to happen, including the Crusades, a form of holy war against Moslems and Jews (and sometimes fellow Christians); the Inquisition, another means of maiming and killing Moslems, Jews and fellow Christians in the name of doctrinal purity; simony or the selling of indulgences, a way for the rich to buy their way into Heaven and for bishops in turn to become rich; and the Great Schism, a period of about 50 years when various factions battled each other for control of the Church, with two and sometimes three different bishops in either Rome or Avignon claiming to be the REAL POPE.

But despite this, signs of an economic and intellectual renewal were starting to be seen in Europe, leading to the Renaissance in the early 15th Century. And since Europe and the Church were virtually tied at the hip back then, many of these signs of life were Church-related. From 1200 to 1600, there came a remarkable succession of thinkers, leaders, reformers and spiritualists: Dominic, Hildegard, Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Sienna, Thomas a Kempis, Luther, Zwingli, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Calvin, Teresa of Avilia, John of the Cross, and Francis of Sales. Each of these people in their own way asked the Church, what does this have to do with Jesus? How can we get back to our spiritual mission?

Two Francises act as bookends of sort across this time period. Francis of Sales died in the early 1600s, after leaving much good and practical advice to ordinary people about leading a spiritual life. However, the other Francis, the one born in Assisi around 1180, decided to take to heart Jesus's words about the poor being blessed, and became poor himself. I still get goosebumps reading G.K Chesterton's words in his book St. Francis of Assisi (Doubleday, 1957):

"While it was yet twilight a figure appeared silently and suddenly on a little hill above the city, dark against the fading darkness. For it was the end of a long and stern night, a night of vigil, not unvisited by stars. He stood with his hands lifted, as in so many statues and pictures, and about him was a burst of birds singing; and behind him was the break of day. "       Back to top

AND THEN CAME REFORMATION: Perhaps the history of the Church can be compared to a growing tree. A seed falls into fertile soil, at just the right time and place ... Jesus was indeed the seed, and his circumstances were just as extraordinary. At first, the tree is one shoot, but it eventually divides and from its branches puts out multiple shoots as it gets taller. Up to now, we have seen one major division, the Eastern Schism. Next we see little shoots coming off the main stem, first in the guise of monastery confederations, and later as the socially active religious orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits). Like an organic tree, all of these branches and shoots represent attempts to get more light for a growing organism. In the case of the Christian Church, this is an attempt to gain more spiritual light.

As the 16th Century dawned, the stage was set for another major break and a series of new shoots. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer and others triggered off the Protestant Reformation, which resulted in a series of new Christian religions in northern Europe and Britain. The issues behind this break-off were complex and in many ways specific to the political and social concerns of the time. But the Protestant reformers did challenge the Roman establishment with legitimate spiritual concerns. Unfortunately, the new Protestant institutions that grew out of this movement often adopted political tactics that were just as bad as the Roman Church's. And in some ways, the Protestants threw out the spiritual baby with the bathwater, e.g. in adopting severely plain liturgies. Furthermore, the Protestants generally replaced the Pope and bishops as infallible idols with the Bible as an infallible idol, paving the way for fundamentalist intolerance (recall that the Bible was often quoted as justification for the continuation of slavery). Also, some factions seized the 5th Century Augustinian notion of predestination, presenting God in a harsh light. Later on, in the modern era, some Protestant faiths sought to soften their reputation by emphasizing social activism, but without developing the spiritual groundings needed to legitimatize such involvements as prophetic.

In sum, the Protestant movement did bring spiritual light into the corners of a changing world that the Roman Church could not reach. But despite their protestations, the Protestants adopted many of the weaknesses (and discarded some of the strengths) of the "tree trunk" from which they departed. Admittedly, today many Protestant faiths are seeking spiritual and liturgical enrichment as to help remedy these weaknesses. Without such enrichment, the controversial social issues that these churches have become involved in will tear them apart.
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AND THEN CAME SCIENCE AND ENLIGHTENMENT: The Roman Church did not take well to the new views of reality offered by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, or to the new philosophies espoused by Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke and Voltaire. Protestantism seemed at first to respond favorably to the ideals of The Enlightenment, e.g. the dignity and importance of the individual. But when Darwin and his theories of evolution came along, some Protestant factions showed themselves to be just as closed minded as their Catholic predecessors had been.

Today, most major Christian faiths have an uneasy truce with science. They no longer question the correctness of scientific paradigms. However, they still depend upon theological myths that often contradict the tenants of science and logic in order to satisfy the legitimate spiritual needs of their followers. Jesus, of course, is presented within the context of these myths. Why hasn't this contradiction severely hurt the Christian churches in an era of technology and logic?
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AND THEN WENT MAGIC, MYTH AND RELIGION: In the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, the intelligentsia of Europe and America were quite impressed with the accelerating pace of scientific discovery and rational analysis. It seemed to them as though something truly big was happening to the world, something on the scale of the apocalypse that was expected in Jesus' time. Humankind seemed to be stepping out of the shadows of ignorance and helplessness, where fate was determined by myth and magic, and into an era of intelligence and control, where logic and reason would be used to satisfy all human needs. It seemed just a matter of time until society could eliminate poverty, hunger, war, disease, tyrannical government, and other general forms of human misery. Religion, with its roots in ancient myths and magic-like rituals, would no longer be needed in this Utopian world.

Actually, only a small percentage of people ever believed in this. Life went on for the common man, despite both betterment and detriment from a rapidly industrializing society. Things were changing, but not on an existential level. The churches and synagogues continued to be crowded on weekends, and religion continued to help average people face the new problems of industrial pollution, dangerous factory jobs, unsafe urban conditions, and mechanized warfare. From their perspective, utopia was nowhere in sight.

However, the people who did believe in this "Age of Reason" were generally educated and wealthy, and their opinions had a lot of political impact. Thus, there was a growing hostility to organized religion at the highest levels of governance. The promoters of the American Revolution decided to take a neutral stance with regard to religion; the First Amendment to the US Constitution in effect say that the government shall neither help nor hinder religion. The French Revolution and other European reform campaigns of the 18th Century were often quite hostile to Catholicism and other religious establishments. But, at least some of their protagonists sincerely believed that it was all necessary so that a Utopian world could emerge. Jesus of Nazareth would probably have sympathized with their ultimate intentions, but would have seen the flaw in their understanding of ultimate human needs.
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BUT UTOPIA NEVER ARRIVED: By the start of the 20th Century, the seeds had been planted for the final test of the Age of Reason. Two Germans named Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels had outline the rationale for the conversion of industrialized society into a workers paradise. Marx and Engels had a very big idea, one that seemingly revealed the overall purpose of human history (including the recent scientific and industrial age). According to Marx, religion was an ancient "opiate of the people" that would no longer be needed. This was quite in keeping with other Enlightenment Era thought.

By 1917, it was clear that science and reason were not fundamentally changing the fate of humankind. The American Revolution was successful, but was soon marred by a Civil War and continuing racial strife. The French Revolution became bloody and purposeless. The Industrial Revolution had created new wealth but also created new forms of suffering. World War I had shown that science and logic could create a bigger and much more deadly form of warfare than anything that had preceded it. So, it would seem that the time for another rationalistic revolution had passed. But, the Marxists found fertile ground in the conditions of Czarist Russia, and the Bolshevik Revolution was soon underway. This time, religion would be wiped out completely, and the promoters of rational humanism would finally have their chance to show the world just how things should be.

And once again, the apocalypse failed to show. Eighty years after the Bolsheviks took Moscow and St. Petersburg, you could buy a piece of the Berlin wall from a capitalist souvenir seller.
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SO THEN, WHERE ARE WE NOW?: We are at a crossroads of sort. Today's most honored physicist, Stephen Hawking, tells us that science may soon find a grand unified theory of all natural forces, and thus "come to know the mind of God". And yet, after all of our many other thrilling scientific triumphs of the past three centuries, our world has not become any more Godly. In the 1950's, it was popular for a time to say that God is dead. Today, despite Hawking's enthusiasm, it seems more appropriate to say that science as a god is dead (although quite alive as a human institution).

Here in the US, people of all education levels now feel the need for "spirituality". The bookstore shelves are groaning with sophisticated books on spiritual growth, spiritual wisdom, spiritual journeying, etc. Islam has been promoting spirituality for 12 centuries, Christianity for 20 centuries, and Judaism for over 30 centuries. So why aren't people flocking to the mosques, churches and temples to find their spirituality?

The current spirituality movement reflects a basic human need, a need even deeper than air, water, food, warmth, companionship, procreation, beauty, justice, recognition, accomplishment, security, stimulation, etc. We live in a time when science, technology, market economics, democratic government and psychotherapy have directly or indirectly provided many people with satisfaction of these needs. So, we can't turn away from reason and technology; they are too much a part of our daily lives. But we now know better than to turn science and logic into our religion, as thinkers from the Age of Reason and the time of Marxism tried to do. {FOOTNOTE: The Jefferson Bible: A Deist Interpretation} So, we turn to organized religion, the oldest and most experienced spirituality institution, or to "New Age" variants of it.

But unfortunately, the institutional religions, both new and old, ask us to put on hold the science and logic that our lives depend on in order to find spirituality. They ask us to embrace theologies and doctrines honed by historical forces from a time when magic and superstition were accepted methods for explaining thunderstorms, crop yields, shooting stars, plagues and life in general. Because of the failure of rationalism to solve the deepest human needs, many thinking people still participate in mythical worship. There are still many more Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mormons and Moslems than there are Secular Humanists and Unitarians (these are the newer and more "enlightened" versions of western religion where God is hardly mentioned). We seem to be bouncing back and forth between two extremes, seeking our daily sustainance in a technological world and yet seeking our spirituality in ancient or mysterious ways. I think that many of us would benefit from a "grand unification theory" that preserves the basic spiritual truths but speaks them in a more direct way. And I think that Jesus himself offered us such a way, if we take a new look at his life and his words.
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THE MODERN QUEST FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS: Many people today are interested in academic studies on "the historical Jesus". This movement or "quest" tries to put aside all religious interpretations of Jesus' life (Savior, Word Incarnate, Son of God, New Adam) and focuses solely on historical evidence about Jesus' life ant times. Interestingly, some of the premier academians involved in this trend are either Catholic clergy or fundamentalist Protestants.

As you might guess, I am also interested in this. In the past few years, I have (hopefully) learned much about the available historical evidence regarding Jesus of Nazareth, about what went on around him and what happened after him. The primary accepted source of historical evidence about Jesus is still the four Gospels (even though most academic experts do not uncritically accept each assertion as "Gospel truth"). So, my interest in the historical Jesus quest has led me to re-read the Gospels more slowly, more carefully, more open-mindedly and more independent of what any priest or preacher has ever said about Jesus.

In doing that, I started to realize something. Jesus was directly mapping out a way for his followers to lead a "spiritual" life and help satisfy their deepest needs. Sure, a lot of other religious leaders throughout history have done this, including Moses, Mohammad, Lao Tzu and the Buddha, and I respect them for their spiritual wisdom. But Jesus seems to include the best of everyone in his formula. His spirituality map includes many familiar points: belief in God, prayer, study, wisdom, morality, good works, open-mindedness, respect and enjoyment of other people, justice, braveness, worship, meditation, simplicity, sharing, healing and occasional solitude. Jesus showed respect for human institutions, and yet maintained an ultimate independence from all such institutions (e.g., "give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, but give unto God ..."). Ultimately and existentially, Jesus belonged to God. God was his King, and he ultimately took orders only from that King, even if those orders commanded him to die in a painful fashion. Now, that's spirituality, plain and simple! {FOOTNOTE: Jesus and Apocalypse}
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JESUSISM: Jesus was a Jew who died trying to fulfill what he felt was the destiny of the Jewish people. He really didn't seem to be trying to start a new religion (and neither did his two immediate successors, Peter and Jesus' brother James). The hint of a new religion was first heard from Paul. Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew. He was trying to help Jews fulfill their destiny by readying them for the Big Event, i.e. the end of earthly time and the start of God's Kingdom on Earth. He did not seem interested in another attempt to recapture the Promised Land by military tactics. Many if not most academic experts on the New Testament today believe that the words in the Gospels saying that the Jews had turned on Jesus and caused his death were added between 50 and 100 CE as the Jesus movement was rejected by post-War Judaism. {FOOTNOTE: Did the Romans cause the Jewish-Christian division?}

And yet, Jesus offer us some universal lessons. With regard to traditional religions, including, ironically, Christianity, we can be part of them, go to their services, respect their morals and ethical judgments, take advantage of their wisdom, and contribute to their good works. However, we should not confuse them with God, just as Jesus did not confuse the Mosaic Law and the Temple with God. In the end, we must find God within the desert of our own hearts, as Jesus did.

This point of view might rightly be called "Jesusism", a term that has been loosely used by others to denote the effect of Jesus' life on our world. By directly examining Jesus' words in the context of his First Century environment, by stepping back a bit from institutional Christianity (just as Jesus stepped back a bit from the institutional Judaism offered by the Temple Priests and the Sadducees), we can find room for our own spiritual quest. I'm not saying that a person can combine moral laxity and spiritual fulfillment. That will not work. Traditional moral and ethical tenants are still the best guideposts for a spiritual life, as Jesus pretty much said. But a bit of breathing room from official church Christology might allow more room for modern scientific / logical ways of thinking, and lessen the dependency on ancient mythological language. In my opinion, one can be technical, logical and rational, and at the same time, spiritual.
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MIRACLES AND THE TRINITY: Let me be blunt. In an age of science and technology, I do not find it helpful to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, experienced a physical resurrection after death, and occupies a place in the Holy Trinity of God. {FOOTNOTE: Exorcisms and feedings} Those "truths" were defined in an age of magic and myth, when people found it easy and sensible to believe similar things. As to the theology of the Trinity, that sounds to me like a condensed version of the Greek-Roman pantheon. Given that the early Church's history and thought is so heavily influenced by the Roman Empire, it is not surprising that the Church developed a theology that was palatable to Greeks and Romans. By presenting Jesus as a God-man, Jesus was a lot more understandable to a former worshiper of Zeus, Saturn, Hermes or Janus than the Hebrew concept of Yahweh would be.

What the Church was trying to do was to preserve Jesus as a spiritual experience; the Church wanted its members to experience the power of Jesus' relationship to God as the apostles experienced it and as Paul later experienced it on the road to Damascus. Saying that Jesus was born to a carpenter's family and died a noble death at the hands of foreigners for pressing his beliefs in Jerusalem would not accomplish this. The true spiritual power of Jesus would have been lost. Magic and myth were the language of the truly important things of the First Century, and if Jesus was to be remembered as truly important, such language was necessary.
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RESURRECTION: What about the Resurrection, then? How did Jesus's cowardly apostles galvanize themselves into a bold movement that preserved his memory and eventually won the hearts and minds of billions of people? Some great spark of inspiration must have struck the apostles during the dejected period that immediately followed Jesus's crucifixion (as N.T. Wright points out). And the empty tomb seems to be consistently stated in all four Gospels (as compared to the varying accounts of what Jesus did after he was discovered alive). Doesn't this point to a miraculous super-natural event?

Obviously, we can never know for sure. But given my opinion that God works through the natural events of life, I could write a number of scenarios using extraordinary but not supernatural events to explain what happened. Under one scenario, consistent with John's Gospel, Jesus would have been crucified on the morning and afternoon prior to the evening Passover meal (the other Gospels imply that the crucifixion took place on the morning following the Passover meal; Raymond Brown and John Meier are sympathetic to John's view). Pilate, arguably worried about avoiding riots in the emotionally ladden hours just before the Passover meal sunset, told the centurion in charge of crucifixions to get the Jewish victims off of the crosses by sunset (since crucifixion was a form of torture, the Romans often let victims suffer on them for a day or more). That centurion had heard a bit about Jesus, and was quietly sympathetic (as Mark's Gospel seems to hint). When sunset came, he ordered his soldiers to grab an iron club and break the legs of the thieves, standard Roman procedure to quickly kill a crucifixion victim. He looked at Jesus, and saw nothing but stillness. Jesus had went on the cross earlier that day exhausted from scourging and carrying his cross, and became increasingly despondent that the apocalypse was not happenning (he may well have said "My God, why have you forsaken me" as reported in Mark 15:34).

A victim of a crucifixion probably struggled for breath and wreathed in pain. In such struggling, the victim managed to drown himself in internal fluids or caused heart failure. That was the evil genius of the crucifixion technique. Perhaps Jesus foiled the process by not struggling. Because of his exhaustion and his disappointment and depression, he entered a coma-like state that is not unknown to practitioners of deep meditation, with an almost undetectable heartbeat and respiration rate. There were no doctors at Golgotha to certify death. The centurion made his own judgment, tinged by sympathy. He spared Jesus from the iron club that would have quickly killed him, and told a young soldier to poke Jesus with a sword, just to make sure that everyone could see that Jesus was apparently dead. Jesus did not flinch, and the centurion squad was satisfied that their ugly work for the day was done. Joseph of Arimathea made sure that Jesus's body was not heaped into the commoners pit (where he would have been quickly buried), but was instead given a more honorable interment in a rock-hewn tomb. This tomb allowed Jesus's body enough space to breath. During the night, Jesus' body rallied from his injuries to recover consciousness the next day. He could not have walked, given the injuries to the leg bones experienced in crucifixion. Sometime the next day, while most Jews stayed inside or went to the Temple to celebrate Passover, someone, perhaps a gardener (as hinted at in John 20:15), heard a groaning. He could not stand the thought of a man trapped in a burial tomb, so he rolled back the 3 foot rounded stone. He saw that Jesus was still alive, and helped him to a resting place, perhaps in a garden shed. Since it was Passover, he could not bring Jesus into a Jewish manor, as he was in a state of extreme ritual impurity (coming from a grave).

Because of injuries and infection, Jesus would not have lived very long. But on Sunday morning, possibly when Jesus was still alive, some of Jesus' women followers would have discovered an empty tomb when attempting to complete the Jewish burial rituals. Imagine the uproar when that happened! Perhaps after Peter came to see the tomb and then left, Mary of Magdala stayed on (as per John 20:11). Once things quieted down, she was led by the gardener to where Jesus was (i.e., rewriting the elements of John 20:14-15 a bit). Jesus, knowing he was dying, may well have commanded her to leave him -- see John 20:17, where Jesus commands Mary not to hold to him as he has not yet gone to the Father. The second half of John 20:17 sounds like the words of a dying man: "say to my brothers that I am ascending to him who is my Father". Mary listened, but probably would have intended to return later with Peter and the group. In that interim, Jesus may have expired and the gardener had him buried. Still, John 20:18 may be literally true: Mary of Magdala did see Jesus alive after the crucifixion, and reported it to the disciples.

Peter and the others may have later gone back to the garden, but otherwise decided not to make a wider search given the continued threat of detection by Roman or Temple authorities (see John 20:19; also notice that the two following appearances before the disciples at John 20:19-29 are implied to be spiritual, given Jesus's effortless entry into a locked room in each case; even in the Thomas incident, Jesus does not say to the cynical Thomas "what you feel is indeed my flesh, thus you may believe"; he instead tells him to "stop doubting and believe", i.e. overcome your cynicism and you will experience my true spirit).

This is an unlikely but not impossible scenario. There are other scenarios by which Jesus would have died on the cross, but his disciples would nonetheless have imagined seeing him on the way home (e.g., the Emmaus experience, Luke 24:13). The excitement of the circumstances and the heightened apocalyptic expectations that Jesus had left them with may have caused them to have spiritual visions of Jesus, much like the one that Paul would later have (Paul hints that Jesus's resurrection appearances to the apostles were spiritual in nature, much like his own; see 1 Cor 15:3-7, 44-49). Jesus thus remained alive and present to his followers. My point in discussing this is that if the disciples experienced a Resurrection that was in fact a function of extraordinary but fully natural events or perceptions, would God's will be any less present in it? {FOOTNOTE: Did Jesus Believe In A Heavenly Afterlife?}
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IN THE END, BACK TO THE START: At bottom, the physical circumstances of Jesus' birth and death are not all that important. What is important is that Jesus' life, his works, his words and his ways can help fulfill our own quest for a worthwhile life in the face of inevitable pain and disappointment in our world. They also point the way to an eternal life beyond the boundaries of our earthly comprehension. If this can be seen, then Jesus has come full circle through 2000 years of human history, back to the spiritual leader and teacher that he was in a dry and dusty land so long ago.
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Here's a good academic resource that nicely supplements and supports most of what I've said here; it's a "learning module" about Early Christianity from a team based at Washington State University. Interestingly, this "module" was developed with the help of a grant from the Boeing Company!

. . . if you'd like to talk about this: eternalstudent404 AT gmail DOT com